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Carl Wernicke Remembers J. Earle Bowden


Much has been said in the last few days, by myself and others who worked with him, about J. Earle Bowden. The longtime editor of the Pensacola News Journal died Sunday, and is rightfully being remembered as a dominant figure of his time in Northwest Florida.

At a certain point it becomes difficult to come up with new insights, as certain themes naturally recur in remembering someone as unique as Earle.

I think what might come closest to summarizing Earle’s life and career is a simple fact: it was easy to see who Earle was because he wore it so plainly in his daily life.

If you had never met Earle before, it took only minutes to understand that this was a unique individual. Beyond his evident graciousness, conversation with Earle quickly told you that this was a man who possessed something special. It was, in fact, the totality of the man.

He had a voracious intellect and seemed to always know more about almost any local subject that came up than you did. This was supported by the most effective memory of any person I have ever met; Earle could hear something once and not just retain it for life, but also access it from then on at just the right moment. He didn’t just remember something, he was able to use it later to influence his understanding of people, of events, of politics, of social and cultural meaning.

I’ve met people with good memories; I’ve met people who know a lot about a lot of things; I’ve met people who understand politics, or culture, or have a keen insight into human nature. But few and far between are the people like Earle Bowden who appear to seamlessly bring all these understandings together to create a fuller understanding of how it all plays out on the larger stage.

I think that one key to Earle’s success in so many areas, not least as the influential editor of a newspaper, lay in his ability to understand so much about people as a whole, and to then translate it back to the individual. Earle was able to relate to large numbers of people, but to do so at the individual level. That’s a real talent.

And there was nothing artificial about this. Earle wasn’t using some technique to charm people. It was genuine, and that’s what attracted people to him. Earle was genuinely interested in you. He was interested in your family background, where you grew up, where you went to school, what church you went to. He was interested in how all this came together to make you into you.

There was, I think, another key to Earle that I think is instructive.  Underneath it all Earle was a man of literature. He saw life playing out the way all great writers do, as the manifestation of basic human instincts: love, hate, greed, generosity, the lust for life and the fear of inevitable death. I think that if Earle ever confessed his innermost desire, it would have been to be remembered as a writer of fiction, one whose writing arose from the rural landscape of the past, where the basic themes of humanity play out in seemingly simple ways that in fact conceal the unfathomable complexities of the human heart.

I think Earle had a deeper look into the human heart than many of us, and it was reflected in how he dealt with other people. Earle wanted people to succeed, and they could see that.

All this is to say that Earle loved people, and he loved life, and he spent his career working to help others succeed. How can you not love someone like that?