Jessie Bowman — ‘Just older than youth’
Jessie Bowman sat on a couch surrounded by photographs of smiling family members and laminated newspaper clippings about his life and various awards. Recently, he has been in the news for receiving the National Order of the Legion of Honour medal, the highest decoration that recognizes service to France, in February and receiving a second key to the city of Granite Falls in March.
“Yeah, now I have two keys, one for the front door and one for the back,” Bowman said, smiling.
Bowman is a quiet man with twinkling eyes and a winning smile. Except for being hard of hearing, he is anything but “old.”
“I’m 94-and-a-half, soon to be 95, and I don’t feel like my life is nearly over yet,” Bowman said.
Over the years, Bowman has worn many hats, that of a pastor, an interpreter, a soldier, a barber, a husband, a father. While he shies away from conversations about fighting in World War II, he loves to talk about his ministry for the deaf.
Bowman grew up with deaf parents, and he understood how difficult it could be for a deaf person to manage in situations, like church services, when accommodations were not provided. In the 1980s, the pastor of his church approached him to start a Sunday school class for the deaf.
“I started with four (in the class). Soon, I had 35 or 40, then we got up to 50. I interpreted for the church, for the pastor for 15 years,” Bowman said.
When the deaf congregation asked for their own ministry, Bowman obliged by retiring his barber shop of 30 years and looking for a church to call their home. He found a place near the Burke County line on Airport Road that allowed them to have an old fellowship hall rent-free. Bowman said the church grew until they had a “complete church” with Sunday school and a worship service, “the whole cotton-picking thing.”
With the First Baptist Church for the Deaf established and on solid ground, Bowman did not hesitate when a friend came knocking and asked if he would join her in starting a deaf ministry in Brazil.
In 1990, he traveled to Sorocaba, where he noticed the terrible conditions for the city’s deaf citizens. There were no jobs offered to them, and they scraped by doing what they could, such as making baskets and sewing. Bowman flew back to the U.S. wondering how he could help.
When Bowman returned two years later, the church members took him on a tour of a cocoa plant, along with the mayor of Sorocaba. They were led into a room where they stood on a high platform overlooking two employees inspecting bottles of cocoa beans on a conveyor belt. The chain underneath the conveyor belt made a horrible, continuous noise all through the workday.
Bowman said, “I said to the mayor, ‘Now right there would be a good place for a deaf person to work.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Well it’s a gift from God that they actually see better than we do because they don’t have their hearing, and they’d probably see something in a cocoa bottle that nobody else would see. And not only that, the noise wouldn’t bother them.’ He said, ‘You know what? I’ve never thought about that.’ From that time on, … he started to get people to hire deaf people to give them a chance.”
After Brazil, Bowman followed his friend to Germany and set up a ministry there as well.
These days, Bowman still runs around, living each day to the fullest. He continues to visit the First Baptist Church for the Deaf in Hickory when it is in between pastors.
“I retired from the deaf church four times,” Bowman said. “After I retired the first time, they got a man from West Virginia. He stayed four years and left. I had to go back and take over. Then we got a man from Kentucky, and he came. He lasted about a year and a half. I had to go back after he left. Then, we got a man from South Carolina. He was a fine fellow. Of course, he retired, and I went back again. Now, we have a man from Texas. But each time, I had to go back and build it back up.”
At home in Caldwell County, he attends First Baptist Church of Granite Falls. There, he met Weyburn Bailey, who he calls “my best friend.” They have been seeing each other for over four years and enjoy the company of their group of friends, known as JOY, or Just Older than Youth.
“We have a real good time,” Bowman said. “We’re going to Virginia in a couple of weeks to a dinner theatre, then we’re going to Pittsburgh this fall. We have something about every month. We’ll go out to eat just for the heck of it.”
Bowman also enjoys gardening, golfing, fishing and doing yardwork. As long as he is staying busy, he is happy.
“I learned a long time ago that rocking chair fever will kill you,” Bowman said with a smile.