Thursday, July 26, 2007
The adventures of Judge Leo Bowman
Judge Leo Bowman never thought he would be such a VIP on the campus of his alma mater. A 1976 political science graduate of Oakland University, the humble Bowman still remembers his surprise when he was offered a seat on the OUAA Board of Directors 13 years ago.
“The then-director of the OUAA called and offered to take me out to lunch at the Pike Street restaurant in Pontiac. Of course I accepted, because you never turn down a free lunch,” joked Bowman. “Then they made the pitch to me. I wasn’t sure why they wanted me, but I said I’d do it. I have never regretted that decision, and serving on the board has truly been one of my most rewarding experiences.”
Bowman began doing committee work and moved up the ranks from secretary to treasurer. “Next thing I knew I found myself in line to be the vice chair,” said Bowman, who recently completed a two-year term as chair of the board.
Bowman has enjoyed watched Oakland blossom over the years, and he wears his pride as an OU alumnus on his sleeve. “I don’t know that I’d be admitted today considering how the university has grown and flourished,” he teased.
Of course, this is hardly the case. Bowman, who spent nearly two decades as a 50th District Court judge in his hometown of Pontiac, was recently appointed by Governor Jennifer Granholm to the 6th Judicial Circuit Court of Oakland County, making him the first African American male to permanently sit there. He serves in the circuit court's family division.
“It’s like night and day,” he said of the switch. On the district court, Bowman heard criminal cases, while on the circuit court he is focused on family law, a move that fits in with his mission to help children make the most of their lives.
“On the district court, the youngest people I saw were 17. At that age, it is really a challenge to try to alter their behavioral patterns. I’d get very frustrated. But now, in the family division, I get to talk to kids at a much younger age, before their ways have become too fixed,” he said, explaining that the approach in juvenile court is different than in criminal court.
“A juvenile offender is not viewed as a criminal, but as a child that has made a bad decision. The purpose of juvenile court is to guide them down a different path, and to give them the support and resources they need to make better choices in the future. It’s very rewarding.”
While he misses his friendships at the district courthouse, Bowman is glad to be able to affect change with local youths. In addition to his seat on the bench, he is involved with a national organization called Do the Write Thing, which encourages middle-schoolers to address the issue of violence within their communities.
Do the Write Thing offers a forum for seventh and eighth graders to write essays about their experiences and consider how they can help combat violence. Bowman was so moved by hearing the winning essays read during a recent awards ceremony in Detroit—at which he delivered the keynote address—that he is working to bring the program to the Pontiac school district.
“Introducing an activity like this to the schools is a great way to get young people to realize that they have the power to make changes. And because local winners advance to the national essay competition in Washington, D.C., this gives the students an added feeling of importance,” Bowman said. “People across the country want to listen to what they have to say.”
Bowman’s passion for nurturing children perhaps stems from his passion for life itself. As a celebration of his 50th birthday in 2004, he ran with the bulls in Pamplona to fulfill a lifelong dream inspired by Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” He recalls traveling to Spain and standing in the town square on July 6, the evening before the running of the bulls and the opening of the Festival of San Fermin.
“It was most exhilarating feeling I have ever experienced, and I had no fear whatsoever,” he said. He plans to run again in 2008, this time taking along his sons Leo Jr., 35; David, 25; and Kendal, 22, who all share Bowman’s adventurous nature.
Last year, Kendal wanted to go skydiving to celebrate his 21st birthday but couldn’t find any friends who would agree to jump with him. Bowman could see Kendal getting discouraged and volunteered for the job.
“I strongly believe that at those times in your life when you feel such a great desire to do something, you’ve just got to do it. So, as a parent, I had to encourage my son not to give up on skydiving, especially after I ran with the bulls for my 50th birthday,” said Bowman. After he committed to the adventure, David and Leo Jr. also signed on.
Such zest for new experiences recently took Bowman and his wife, Clara—who understandably couldn’t bear to watch Bowman skydive with her sons or run with the bulls—to South Africa for 18 days with OU Professor of Political Science Vince Khapoya and a group of scholars. They visited the Supreme Court of South Africa and met with deans and law students at the Law School of Western Cape, discussing the differences in the legal system there versus in the U.S.
The group toted an OU banner across the country, displaying it a number of significant sites including Table Mountain, South Africa’s highest point; the site where Nelson Mandela was captured; and, most exhilarating for Bowman, the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet.
Despite his globetrotting—and his promotion—Bowman’s heart remains in Pontiac. “The Oakland County Circuit Court is located at 1200 Telegraph, which is still technically Pontiac,” he explained.
And all bets are on the fact that, wherever Bowman’s path leads, he remains grounded—figuratively and literally.
“After Kendal’s brothers agreed to go skydiving with him, my plan was to gracefully back out,” said Bowman. Still, he found himself in the airplane strapped with gear. “All my sons had jumped already, and I was the last one in the plane. Even as I stood by the open hatch I was thinking, ‘Leo, you don’t have to do this.’ But then I just jumped,” adding, “Skydiving is something I would not do again.”