Ex-Indiana governor, HHS head Otis Bowen dies at 95

Otis Bowen with President Reagan
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Former Indiana Governor Otis "Doc" Bowen died late Saturday night at the age of 95.

Bowen helped promote safe sex practices in the early years of the AIDS crisis as the top federal health official under President Ronald Reagan. He also served two terms as Indiana's governor, overhauling the state's tax system.

Bowen died Saturday at the Catherine Kasper Life Center, a nursing home in Donaldson, about 25 miles south of South Bend and near Bowen's hometown of Bremen.

Funeral info

Mishler Funeral Home in Bremen announced Sunday that Bowen's funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Bremen. The calling hours will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday and 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the church.

Bowen, known among Hoosiers for decades as "Doc," was a doctor in Bremen when he first was elected to office in 1952 as Marshall County coroner, starting a political rise that saw him become a wildly popular Republican governor during 1973-81.

AIDS crisis

He became secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1985, taking charge of the federal government's response to the spread of AIDS after the Reagan administration had been criticized by activists for a slow initial response.

Bowen promoted public awareness of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and worked with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop on the mailing to 107 million households of a pamphlet with explicit advice on how to avoid the AIDS virus, including using condoms.

During a 1987 news conference, Bowen gave a bit of advice that entered the national lexicon: "Remember, when a person has sex, they're not just having it with that partner, they're having it with everybody that partner had it with for the past 10 years."

Eyewitness News last spoke to Doc Bowen on his 90th birthday.  He had slowed down a little. Bowen was spending most of his time in northern Indiana with his third wife, Carol, after he had outlived his first two wives.

For those that knew and worked with Bowen, he was a man of service, a man of his work and the most honest person to grace the halls of the Statehouse.  

"Any of our governors that are still with us, none of them would have any problem saying that Doc Bowen is the most beloved political figure in our lifetimes," said Peter Rusthoven, WTHR political analyst.

Bowen, the stocky, bespectacled speaker of the Indiana House, won the state's top office in a landslide in 1972, beating former Democratic Gov. Matthew Welsh.

It has been over thirty years since Doc Bowen left the Statehouse. His legacy to you has been lower property taxes.

"He is the one who introduced and fought for caps on property tax," said Rusthoven, "which is benefiting homeowners around this state to this day."

Bowen made state-backed property tax relief his top campaign pledge as those taxes had more than doubled in the previous decade. Legislation passed the next year doubled the sales tax to 4 percent and dedicating the extra revenue to property tax cuts. The proposal was so hotly contested that it only passed the state Senate when Bowen's lieutenant governor, Robert D. Orr, cast a tie breaking vote.

State Democrats responded with bumper stickers that said, "What's Up Doc? Taxes! Vote Democratic." But the public largely embraced the tax reforms, boosting Bowen's popularity.

Under an amendment to the state constitution, he was the first governor since the mid-1800s eligible to seek a second consecutive term and easily won re-election in 1976 over Indiana Secretary of State Larry Conrad.

President Reagan called on Bowen in 1985 to join his cabinet as the head of Health and Human Services. Bowen was the first medical doctor to serve in that position. At the time of confirmation hearings, the AIDS virus was sweeping the nation.  Bowen helped guide federal government response for better treatments and research.

The nation was seeing the character of man that Indiana voters had known for years.  Rusthoven characterized Bowen as "comfortable in (his) own skin."

"Doc Bowen didn't need to be governor to feel he was an important human being. His contribution came in what he did," Rusthoven said, "not in the titles he wore."

We often measure the success of a political figure by what he has done and his list of accomplishments is long. Indiana University basketball fans remember Doc Bowen for what he did not do. In 1979, Coach Knight had been convicted of punching a policeman in Puerto Rico during the PanAm games. Puerto Rico wanted the coach in jail, but Bowen refused to send Knight back to Puerto Rico. 

Republican leaders wanted Bowen to challenge Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh in 1980, but he declined as his wife, Beth, was in the midst of cancer treatment. His decision cleared the way for Dan Quayle, then a 33-year-old congressman, to win the GOP nomination and unseat Bayh.

Beth Bowen died on New Year's Day 1981 after more than 40 years of marriage and just days before her husband's second gubernatorial term ended.

Early years

Bowen was born Feb. 26, 1918, near the northern Indiana town of Rochester. He received bachelor's and medical degrees from Indiana University and joined the Army Medical Corps after completing his internship in 1943. His World War II service included going ashore with the first waves of Allied troops during the invasion of Okinawa in 1945.

He then returned to Indiana and, in 1946, started a family medical practice in Bremen, a small town about 20 miles south of South Bend, which he continued for 25 years.

Bowen once said his medical career, during which he estimated he delivered 3,000 babies, taught him "how to approach emergencies and problems with a certain amount of calmness and common sense."

After leaving the governor's office, Bowen taught at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He was tapped by Reagan to become HHS secretary in 1985, a post he remained in until Reagan left office in January 1989.

Bowen said his greatest accomplishment as health secretary was persuading Reagan to back a health insurance bill that passed Congress in 1988 in the first major expansion of Medicare since it was established in 1965. But the bill was repealed by Congress the next year, following complaints from retirees who already had coverage and from higher-income people who had to pay a surtax to finance two-thirds of the program.

Bowen had four children with his first wife, Beth. His son, Robert, tried to extend the Bowen family election success, but lost to another second-generation politician, Evan Bayh, in the 1986 race for Indiana secretary of state. Bayh was later elected governor.

Otis Bowen married Rose Hochstetler, a widow from Bremen, in 1981. They moved back to Bremen in 1989 after his time in Washington, but she died of cancer two years later.

Bowen was married in 1993 to Carol Mikesell, who had been a patient of his some 30 years earlier, during which time he delivered her two children.

Senator Joe Donnelly issued this statement, regarding the death of Bowen:  "Doc was one of the best examples of Hoosier leadership, as he worked tirelessly to improve the lives of families across our great state. From his days practicing medicine in Bremen, Indiana to his two terms as governor and work as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Doc lived in service to his community, state, and nation. My family and I extend our deepest sympathies to Governor Bowen's family during this difficult time."

Governor Mike Pence issued the following statement:   "Governor Otis R. Bowen's contributions to the life of this state and nation are incalculable, and I mark his passing with a sense of personal loss. His story is as inspiring as it is uniquely Hoosier.   From his early days in Fulton County where his dreams of practicing medicine were born, to his service in uniform in World War II, "Doc" Bowen's life would be defined by care giving and public service. Upon his return from military service, he started a private medical practice in Bremen and began a career in public life that carried him from local office to the General Assembly and on to one of the most consequential governorships of Indiana's second century.    

As the first governor since 1851 to serve two consecutive terms in the office, our 44th governor led Indiana through a season of reform in taxes, healthcare, and government administration. Governor Bowen also advanced historic improvements to our state park and recreation system, helping to create five new state parks including the first urban park in Indiana.  

After leaving office, "Doc" Bowen returned to medicine as a professor at the Indiana University Medical Center, but in 1985, this extraordinary Hoosier would be called, once again, to public service when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Secretary Bowen would lead that government agency until January 20, 1989, when President Reagan left office. Coming full circle, "Doc" Bowen returned to Bremen, Indiana where it all began.  

Throughout his life, Governor Bowen's career was characterized by integrity, devotion to family, and love for Indiana. The debt this state owes to Governor Otis R. Bowen can only be repaid by relentless imitation of his example.  

Karen and I send our deepest sympathies and prayers to his family, his wife Carol, and to his children and grandchildren during this difficult time. God bless you, Doc. Your caring work as a physician, your service, and your leadership left Indiana and our nation better for you having been here. You will be missed and your contributions to Indiana will be remembered always."

Pence has directed that flags at state facilities across Indiana be flown at half-staff through next Saturday to honor former Gov. Bowen.

The governor is also is asking Indiana businesses and residents to lower their flags to half-staff to honor Bowen for his service to the state and the nation.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)