I met Frank Bowe in September 1977. We were introduced by a mutual friend Bill Hayes. Bill’s son, also called Bill, had multiple severe disabilities. Bill and his wife were fierce advocates on behalf of Bill junior. Bill had met Frank at a Congressional hearing on disability. Bill had been trying to set up a meeting with Frank and me for almost a year.
I had very little knowledge of Frank Bowe before we met. He knew more about me than I knew about him. He was moved by an article that I had written and was published in four publications. The article was Strangers in Our Own Land. He had read other articles of mine.Frank had just moved into a tiny office on Connecticut Avenue. There was barely room for three people. Accompanying Frank was a sign language interpreter Michael Hartman. When Frank was three-years-old he contracted measles. One of the results was his deafness.
Frank was the executive director of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, a civil rights organization representing nearly 80 organizations working on behalf of disabled people. Frank and I became friends and admirers of each of our abilities quickly. I listened as he told me his agenda. His eyes sparkled as he listed his legislative priorities. They were getting legislation passed regarding benefiting people with disabilities in education, jobs, housing, and transportation.
When he finished he asked me, “I need help. I need someone who can write and who knows the media. Will you help me accomplish my goals?”
I was interested, but I was working for an organization that I loved and the job was very satisfying.
“I am interested in your agenda. However, I am not sure I can help. I need to find out what my bosses will say. I have more work than I can handle. I will call you.”
“Wait. Wait. I am offering you a job. I have money.”
“How much can you pay me?”
“Twenty thousand this year. Next year $22,000 and the year after $24,000.”
“Thank you. But I am making $35,000 plus benefits. I would need over $41,000. Presently, I live about four miles south of my office. I get to work in 15 minutes. It will take more than an hour for me to come into Washington DC daily. That’s an hour into Dc and an hour to get home.”
Frank was silent. ”I can get the money. When I do, I expect you to come to work for me. Will you do that?”
“I will consider it.”
Frank and I shook hands. As I was leaving, he said, “I shall keep in touch.”
Frank did keep in touch for nearly a year. He invited me to a Christmas Party, several luncheons to meet selected board members, some strategy meetings, several breakfasts to meet politicians and White House Staff. My wife and I invited him to supper at our house. Most of the time when he came for supper, he stayed the night. Frank was also a good chess player. W would start playing chess around 8:30 and finish two-to-three hours later. Over the years we played several dozen games. Our win/loss record was 50/50.
When I met Frank, I was working for United Way of America. I was the senior staff writer for their communications division. I wrote a weekly newsletter that went to thousands of people in the United Way movement. I wrote speeches for United Way Board members. I wrote articles on United Way volunteers. I wrote a of the United Way/National Football League’s public service announcements. I wrote promotional materials, and I worked with the media. I was the go between United Way and the press. Anything going out to the public had to pass through me.
I loved my job. But after three years of working 55-to-60 hours a week I was getting tired physically and psychologically. The more work I produced, the more I was given.
Eleven months after I met Frank, his assistant and sign language interpreter Marsha Miller called me and asked me if I could meet him soon. A week later Frank came to our house for dinner. Marsha was with him. We started talking when he reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter. He said, “Read this.”
I did. It was a letter offering me a job at a very good salary. I was surprised. I never dreamed he would raise the money. He told me, “I have grants coming in over the next three years that will cover your salary and that of others. It will also cover a move. We are moving to 15th Street, across from the Washington Post.”
He also said, “I will teach you to write grants. You will never go hungry as long as you can write grants.” Frank was the most prolific grant writer I know. In the three years I worked for him, he brought in nearly two dozen grants. He was a brilliant writer, and the fastest writer I ever met. He wrote a terrific book on transportation for people with disabilities over a weekend. He also had a phenomenal memory.
My wife and I talked about the job. I felt as though I needed the change. I had a new boss at United Way of America. We were not clicking on anything. And so I left. I started working for ACCD in September 1978.
Next installment: I was his ears. He was my mouth.
John Williams can be reached at email@example.com.
I started working for Frank Bowe in October 1978. My first day on the job, he called me into his office and charged me with, "Getting the word out on the mission of the American Coalition of citizens with Disabilities."
I replied, "I have some ideas and I shall refine them and in a couple of days bring them to you for discussion."
"Good. I am anxious to see them," Frank replied.
A couple of days passed. I was still working on the plan when I went into the office. Frank had left a note on my door. He wanted to see me immediately. When I walked into his office, I signed, "Good morning. How are you?"
"I am fine," he answered in sign language and voice. He said, "I want a press conference for tomorrow. The Department of Education is issuing a report on educating children with disabilities, and I want to comment on it. I shall write what I want to say. Here are the names and affiliations of people who will attend the conference and speak."
"Will we receive an advanced copy of the report? We should so you can speak authoritatively on the report," I asked.
I spent the entire day getting ready for the press conference. I drafted a press release, contacted the press and organizations in Washington, DC, VA and MD working on disability issues. Frank approved the press release and we ran 100 copies off.
The next day we held the press conference. Frank was the lead speaker. Other speakers followed. The public and the press were no shows. Frank was angry about the lack of press and demanded to know why.
My response was simple.
"You held a non news press conference. To attract the press, the reporters need to know you. They need to know that what you are saying has national implications, not local implications... You and the rest of the speakers kept talking about how this report impacts students with disabilities in Virginia and Maryland. This is a national report so tell the press what are the national implications of this report and how children with disabilities who are either not being educated or are undereducated has negative economic effects on the country."
Frank listened and then asked, "How do we change that?"
"I shall tell you tomorrow."
"Good night and tell Lisa I am sorry for keeping you late."
The next day when I went into the office Frank was there along with Marsha his interpreter.
"Are you ready to tell me how I can get the press to come to our press conferences? The last three we had were abysmal failures. My board won't tolerate another failure," Frank said.
"Frank. I have a plan that I want to start implementing next week. It is this .I am a member of the National Press Club. Most of its members are reporters. I have a list of more than 20 reporters. I want to bring them in one at a time for an hour session with you. You educate them on our issues and why people with disabilities need jobs, need access to public transportation, need an education and need a living wage so they can survive. And other issues that people with disabilities face."
I was successful in bringing in about 30 print and broadcast reporters in two months. We gave each reporter an hour. Other aspects of the plan included Frank going to NPC luncheons; publishing two newsletters on our activities; arranging for Frank to be interviewed by the press on his travels; getting publications to publish articles by Frank on disability issues; working with corporate media to accept articles from Frank on the benefits of hiring people with disabilities; and doing disability workshops for the media.
In getting the media to interview Frank, I billed him as the Martin Luther King of the disability movement. Frank never objected to the title. The press loved Frank. He was charismatic, a superb speaker and brilliant. He never lied to the press. When he gave them a statistic he was accurate, and they knew it.
The next press conference we held and future press conferences drew the media.
In less than a year, Frank had become a recognizable feature in Washington, DC. His visibility opened political and corporate doors. The more visibility he received the easier it was to raise grant and foundation money.
Frank and I bonded tightly intellectually. In less than six months, we had total trust in one another. When he was on travel and could not be reached by the press or me, I created a response and gave it to the press with his name attached. Not once did Frank get upset.
I stutter. In my conversations with Frank, I seldom stuttered. I never reached the level of signing where I could carry on a long conversation with just Frank and me. When I made incorrect signs, he would tell me. One day after a press interview, Frank said, "Everything you have done for me, the staff and the organization I appreciate. You are my ears, and I am your voice."
One of the drawbacks in getting Frank so much publicity was his board fired him in late 1980. He was becoming too well known and too good at his job.
His firing hurt the disability movement. His dismissal left a black hole in the movement and it never recovered
This is the third article in a series about Frank Bowe. A fourth will appear later this week.
Every one who knew Frank Bowe considered him to be brilliant. He was a brilliant tactician. He knew how to wage a successful campaign even against superior forces.
One of ACCD’s major goals was to convince the federal government to support legislation mandating mainstream air, bus and rail transportation access for people with disabilities. Our foes were the airlines, railroads and buses.
I had been with ACCD about four months when Frank called a strategy meeting on transportation accessibility. He had a threefold plan. His first priority was to sue the Washington DC Metroliner for not making its stations accessible to people with disabilities. Even though accessibility was the law, Metro had failed to comply in the Greater Metropolitan Washington, DC area. The Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia represented ACCD in court.
In addition to the Philadelphia law firm, Frank secured the services of famed civil liberties attorney Joseph Rauh. I witnessed four meetings with Frank and Rauh. Rauh was Mr. Civil Liberties. He was a living legend and a brilliant lawyer. I was in the presence of one of the greatest lawyers in American history. As I watched Frank and Rauh work, I was awe stricken at how well they worked together. I took notes for Frank.
Rauh and I had lunch once during which he told me that Frank should have been an attorney. “Frank has an excellent grasp of transportation and civil rights laws,” Rauh said. Rauh saw the refusal to provide accessible transportation for people with disabilities as a civil rights issue. “It’s a pure act of discrimination, and we can’t allow that,” he told me the first time I saw him. Rauh worked with the Philadelphia law firm. Eventually Metro retrofitted the stations in and around Washington, DC. It was a victory for America..
Frank’s second priority was to pressure the Department of Transportation into persuading the airlines to provide accessible transportation to people with disabilities. He had many meetings with Neil Goldschmidt, president Carter’s Secretary of Transportation on accessible transportation. It took more than a year but Goldschmidt was successful in persuading the airlines to provide accessible transportation for people with disabilities.
Frank’s third priority was to persuade Congress to pass legislation granting people with disabilities access to busses. This was a tough fight. Our opponent was the American Public Transit Authority (APTA). They had huge advantages in personnel and money. They had members of Congress on their side. APTA did not want to provide mainstream accessible busing. One of their reasons for not wanting to provide transportation was that the non-disabled population did not want to ride business with disabled people. APTA supported local option or a para-transit program. We opposed their policy.
Frank testified on Capitol Hill many times on ACCD’S position on accessible transportation. He was an ideal spokesman. He spoke with conviction. He was honest in his presentations. He was resolute in his determination to succeed in guaranteeing people with disabilities the right to travel on planes, rail and bus.
While Congress did not pass the legislation we asked for, we were successful in persuading the airlines, bus and rail companies that people with disabilities had a right to travel. It seemed an impossible goal, but we accomplished our goal under Frank’s guidance.
This is the fourth and final article on Frank Bowe.
In all h years I knew Frank, I knew him to be a complex man. He was a visionary. He was brilliant. He was charismatic. He was a leader. He was a gifted writer. He was a fighter. He was a husband and father. He was committed to making the world a better place for people with disabilities. He was daring. He was fearless. He loved laughing. He was easily embarrassed when he heard men tell sex jokes. He was equally embarrassed when women saw him in his undershirt. He loved chess and could have been a grandmaster. He cared deeply about the people who worked for him. He was ambivalent about notoriety about himself. He was independent. He was honest. He was a compromiser who possessed superb political instincts. He was a strong supporter of Civil Rights. He loved politics and would have made an excellent diplomat. He despised politicians who did not care about the quality of life for people with disabilities. He was the most driven person I have ever worked for. Sixteen hour days were common for Frank. Above all, he was an educator.
People either liked Frank or disapproved of him. They feared him, too. When opposing politicians, he was ready to exploit their weaknesses. He did not understand why people with disabilities were looked down on by people without disabilities. He did not understand the reluctance by politicians to move quicker on legislation dealing with opening up America in education, public access and jobs. He was 100% committed to improving the lives of people with disabilities. To achieve his goals he hired the best advocates he could find.
I learned a lot from Frank. Other people I know also learned from him.
When Frank left the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, the disability movement lost its most effective speaker and leader. Advocates knew that ACCD would soon close its doors.
Frank was a unique individual. In the time he spent fighting for equality for Americans with disabilities, he became a recognized figure as someone to deal with. People working with and against his principles found him to be a formidable foe.
Frank was a role model for young, middle-aged men and women. He treated everyone the same. His deafness never stopped him from pursuing his goals,