Otis R. “Doc” Bowen was born in Rochester, Indiana in 1918 and attended the local schools before getting his undergraduate and medical degrees at Indiana University. He served in the Medical Corps during World War II, stationed in the Pacific and accompanying troops ashore during the invasion of Okinawa in 1945. Bowen returned to Indiana and began practicing medicine in Bremen, Indiana as a general practitioner. In 1952, he was elected Marshall County Coroner, elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1956, lost by four votes in 1958, and re-elected in 1960. He rose to minority leader of the House by 1965 and helped engineer a Republican return to the majority in 1966 and became Speaker of the House.
In 1968, Bowen lost the primary race to Whitcomb, but in 1972, he won the Republican nomination. He would run against Matt Welsh who was attempting to return to the governor’s office. Bowen beat Welsh handily, with 1.2 million votes to Welsh’s 900,000. It’s probably worth mentioning a few statistics at this point. The election saw a turnout of 60.8% of the voting age population. The percentage had been dropping pretty steadily since 1960 when it had been 76.9%. According to the 1970 census, Indiana’s population was 5.2 million people — up 11.4% from 1960. The white population was 92.83%, the black population was 6.88%, the foreign-born population was 1.6%, 60.87% lived in urban areas versus 39.13% in rural areas. (Source: James Madison, The Indiana Way).
One area Bowen pursued in the House and again as governor was property tax reform. He believed that schools and local government needed a broader tax base but wanted to avoid big rate hikes on homeowners and businesses. Bowen imposed a property tax freeze but doubled sales taxes and permitted local government to impose income taxes, particularly where the income taxes would be used as a substitute for property taxes. So, in a sense, he shifted taxes from ownership to income and consumption. Obviously there is going to be a lot of overlap in taxpayers, but there are winners and losers when government makes that sort of shift. And, in fact, local government and schools were limited in their ability to impose taxes. School funding shifted away from the local governments and toward the state. Schools protested that the state was underfunding them. Bowen’s property tax freeze, sales tax raise, and limitations on local government would be echoed 30 years later during the Daniels administration.
For the most part, Bowen enjoyed Republican majorities in the General Assembly to assist him with his legislative agendas, though this was complicated for a time after the election of 1974 when Watergate and the national electoral mood sent Democrats to the Indiana House. Republicans regained control in the 1976 national bicentennial year. One of Bowen’s proudest accomplishments was upgrading the Indiana state park system, including creation of the White River State Park in Indianapolis and addition of Potato Creek and Wyandotte Woods and more than 40 nature preserves. “He also oversaw completion of Indiana’s interstate highway system, merged several road agencies into the Department of Transportation, [and] adopted 911 as the statewide emergency telephone number[.]”
As a doctor, Bowen took some interest in the state’s medical education. He pushed for doctors to be trained at branch campuses of IU and put an emphasis on teaching general practitioners. He was also able to have legislation adopted that limited physician liability. Bowen vetoed several gambling measures.
During Bowen’s term, on January 24, 1977, Indiana became the 35th and last state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Because the amendment did not receive the necessary 38 state ratification, it did not become part of the Constitution. (Here is an interesting account written by Beth Van Voorst Gray about ratification in Indiana and her perspective as Principal Secretary of the Indiana Senate and an advocate for the ERA.) The amendment itself was fairly simple, the meat of it reading, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Phyllis Schlafly is given a lot of credit for stopping the ERA’s momentum and preventing it from being passed into law. She and her supporters exploited fears “lurking in the minds of many people: girls/daughters going to war, unisex bathrooms, nullification of rape laws, and the like.” The proposed amendment had passed Congress with a deadline for ratification, failed to meet that deadline, and died.
Speaking of Constitutional amendments Bowen was able to take advantage of the recent state constitutional amendment and serve for two terms instead of the one term that had been the limit since the 1851 Constitution. He was re-elected easily — with about the same vote margin as he received against Matt Welsh in 1972, this time his Democratic opponent was Larry Conrad. At the end of his term, he considered running against Birch Bayh for the Senate seat that Dan Quayle ultimately captured. However, his wife was sick, and he declined the opportunity. His wife, Beth, died on New Year’s Day, 1981.
Bowen served on the faculty of the IU School of Medicine and then, in 1985, was chosen by President Reagan as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. In that capacity, he sounded the alarm on the AIDS epidemic — something the Reagan administration was criticized for being slow to address. Bowen said that, if progress was not made in dealing with the disease, within a decade, we might be dealing with a death toll in the tens of millions.
Bowen was also able to champion legislation that covered the costs of catastrophic illnesses for Medicare recipients, but the act was repealed when higher income seniors objected to paying a higher surtax to fund the program, and Congress repealed the act.
Governor Bowen lived until the age of 95, and passed away in 2013.
That brings us to the end of Indiana Bicentennial 11. Next time, we’ll head into the 80s and 90s with the 12th installment.