Jonathan Street Neighborhood Remembers Helen Bowers
Editor’s Note: Every Sunday, The Herald-Mail publishes “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series looks back – through the eyes of family, friends, colleagues and others – on a recently deceased member of the community. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Helen Bowers, who died on March 26 at the age of 82. Bowers’ obituary was published online in The Herald-Mail on March 30.
Helen Bowers has dedicated herself to improving life in the Jonathan Street neighborhood, and it has inspired her children as her vision of hope continues in the central area of the city.
Andy Smith, one of her five children, remembers his mother’s life-changing events for her family when she was a young boy.
First it was Chicago
After Helen married Melvin Louis Bowers Sr., the family moved from Hagerstown to Chicago, where Helen worked for 30 years at the upscale Marshall Field department store. Andy speculates the couple moved there in 1966 to reunite with Melvin’s family, many of whom had left the Deep South to find better jobs.
Also, many blacks were migrating to northern cities at the time to escape Jim Crow laws, a set of state and local laws that legalized racial discrimination.
For Andy and his family, life in Chicago was nothing like what they had left behind in Hagerstown.
Seeing black-run, black-owned businesses was new to him. Then there was the kitchen, which featured food trucks wrapping around hot tamales. Excursions to the city’s Chinatown offered more adventure.
“Those seeds kind of stuck with us,” said Andy, who was 6 at the time. Her sister Roxann, who lives in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, was 8 years old.
From then on, “we felt comfortable going anywhere,” Andy said.
He looks back on the big move with joy as Melvin, who was his stepfather, along with other members of Melvin’s family, welcomed the new members of their family with open arms. And the kids got a lot of love from Helen.
“She really made us feel part of where we were going,” Andy said.
Helen’s other children are Sharon, Melvin and Shaun.
A “city in itself”
Marshall Field’s was a whole different experience.
It was a shopping mecca, an experience made all the more memorable by its magical Christmas window displays, Andy and Roxann said. Andy also remembers a “living tree” stretching across the store.
“I remember it when I was a little girl. It was a town unto itself,” said Roxann, who trained as a certified practical nurse.
Among Helen’s jobs was working in the greeting card department.
“A lot of celebrities went there that she mentioned,” Andy said, including the time she met veteran journalist Dan Rather.
Helen was respected among store management for her customer service and professionalism and was a frequent recipient of awards. Roxann recalls her mother walking through the door in her “open toe” dress shoes and other formal wear during work days in an upscale environment to support her family.
“She was highly regarded for her work ethic,” Roxann said.
Back to Hagerstown
Melvin and Helen divorced and Helen moved back to Hagerstown in 1991, continuing her retail work at businesses like McCrory’s on Washington Street and Ames and Walmart stores.
Then she turned her attention to the Jonathan Street community where she grew up.
In 2010, she joined the city’s 1st Group Neighborhoods program, which encourages residents of different 1st Group neighborhoods across the city to work with the city government on events, projects, and initiatives. Andy said he felt lucky to be in a town that offers such a program, adding that he didn’t know of any others like it in the area.
More memory life:Joe Robeson was a tough athlete and educator who endeared himself to students and staff
Community Love:Merwin Hans has helped write history and improve his community over his 100 years
Days at the Venice Inn:Mike Conway helped roll the dishes at the busy Venice Inn
Helen’s group was the 1st Medal of Honor Neighborhoods group, which still thrives today in the Jonathan Street neighborhood. Located along the street is the Medal of Honor Triangle, a park that honors Cpl. William O. Wilson, a soldier from Hagerstown who won a Medal of Honor for his actions around the Battle of Wounded Knee, a massacre of Native Americans in South Dakota in 1890.
Helen has been actively involved in organizing a Day of Hope celebration in the neighborhood each year. It is usually held in Wheaton Park and features music, health screenings and the distribution of school supplies to children. At Christmas, she joined others in decorating the Medal of Honor triangle.
Helen worked to protect the neighborhood and formed relationships with various Hagerstown Police Department officers over the years, according to Andy and Roxann. That culminated in efforts like going door-to-door with officers to distribute public safety flyers, they said.
“She was a little dynamo,” Andy said.
Andy said his mother never left the neighborhood, despite some of the crimes he witnessed. She was well known and respected, even among those who sometimes broke the law, he said.
A touching memory
She became particularly close to former Hagerstown Police Chief Victor Brito. Andy recalls how Brito, who served from 2016 to 2018, drove her home one night after an initial group meeting from the quarters and the two hit it off. Brito, who assigned an officer to work with the 1st Medal of Honor Quarters Group, spoke at Helen’s funeral April 1 at Asbury United Methodist Church on Jonathan Street, where she was active.
Brito brought a commemorative patch and patch from the Rockville, Maryland Police Department, where he serves. The items were placed in Helen’s casket before she was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery on South Potomac Street.
“It really touched my family and it really touched me,” Andy said of Brito’s appearance.
Andy and Roxann said they believe their mother’s dedication to the community made them realize the importance of work. Today, Andy is the host of the Neighborhoods 1st group his mother worked so hard on. The job includes leadership of the various Neighborhoods 1st groups meeting periodically and getting updates from the city police on public safety issues.
Andy’s dedication to the Jonathan Street neighborhood began in the 1980s helping black men achieve success. He is also now involved with Brothers Who Dare to Care, which has overseen events like public health workshops and a community newsletter.