Who is Howard Bowers, Anyway?

By Joe Romano,

Marketing Manager

No American president has been elected from a place quite like Hyde Park… Obama might as well live at the corner of Liberal and Kumbaya.

—Peter Slevin, Washington Post Staff Writer

Every year in October, GreenStar raises money for the Howard Bowers Fund. We choose a day in Co-op Month, declare it Howard Bowers Day and urge shoppers to shop on that day because we donate one percent of our sales to the Howard Bowers Fund, plus whatever additional amount members are moved to donate.

Every year we get an overwhelming response — “Who is Howard Bowers?”

We reply with the same canned phrases: he is “a long-time leader in the food co-op community,” a man who “dedicated his life to the growth and development of the cooperative community,” a man who “understood the importance of education and training.” Then we reprint the sixth cooperative principle, “Cooperation among Cooperatives,” open the doors and wait for you dedicated cooperators to come flooding in, donations in hand.

This year, Saturday, Oct. 9 will be Howard Bowers Day at GreenStar; perhaps this time, we should provide a little context. The truth is, all co-ops repeat the same few phrases. For someone credited with so much influence, precious little is written about him. Seriously, who is this guy?

We know that Barack Obama was a community organizer in the same liberal neighborhood as the former Weatherman William Ayers. We remember Obama’s radical minister, too, but what Fox News failed to uncover or report was that the Howard Bowers was running the neighborhood’s local food co-op and was also, as Obama described Ayers, “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.”

The neighborhood in question is Hyde Park, a liberal enclave of around 30,000 people in the shadow of the University of Chicago. The Washington Post characterized Hyde Park “as a highfalutin, arugula-eating slice of academic elitism.” This crunchy “Berkeley with snow” was founded by Paul Cornell in 1850, while his cousin, Ezra Cornell, was financing the building of railroads here in New York, literally laying the groundwork for the city of Ithaca. Do you think they knew that they were both building communities that would eventually be surrounded by reality?

The Hyde Park neighborhood was also built right up to the edge of a large lake, so that the weather would be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, just like here in Ithaca. With good transportation and a major university, an oddly isolated, prosperous and liberal community would grow, as would a cooperative market. Their co-op began in 1932 as a buying club during the Great Depression. After a series of gradual expansions, the cooperative opened the Hyde Park location in 1959, and at the time was the largest supermarket in the city of Chicago.

In 1983, when Howard Bowers became General Manager, the Obamas, Dick Gregory, Louis Farrakhan and a veritable who’s who of community activists had to have been shopping at the Hyde Park Cooperative Society, it would have been hard to avoid.

Howard Bowers’ tenure at the co-op ended a long period of transition that was marked by declining profits. He brought with him a wealth of cooperative experience and spurred a long period of growth, having previously spent almost twenty years at the Consumer’s Cooperative Association of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a 17,000 member cooperative.

Throughout his years there, Hyde Park Co-op hosted co-op conferences and management meetings and Howard himself mentored many current co-op managers, serving as a bridge from the generation of consumer cooperatives launched in the 1930s and 1940s to many of our strongest new-wave co-ops today.

A review from the period stated, “They are really a throwback to the time when service meant something and the customer was always right,” which tells you that at the heart of him Howard Bowers was a grocer. He was also a husband, a son to his parents who both outlived him, a father to two children and a grandfather to five.

He wore glasses, short hair, a moustache and a goatee, wide ties and the kind of suit you might expect a grocer to wear. He served on the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis, and the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club; he had provided assistance to a nascent housing community, the… get ready… Qumbya (pronounced Kum-bay-Ya) Housing Cooperative. Today, that community is spread over three large buildings, one of which bears his name, as does a street that runs through the neighborhood.

It sounds a lot like, wherever he lived, Howard Bowers was basically an Ithacan.

In his five-decade career, he worked for cooperatives throughout the Midwest and was in great part responsible for reviving the Cooperative Management Association, which he helped build into the organization for all consumer-owned food cooperatives, the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA). He also served on the boards of the Cooperative Development Foundation and the National Cooperative Business Association.

On Saturday, Oct. 26, 1991, Howard Bowers died, having been ill with cancer for several months.

The Howard Bowers Fund for Consumer Cooperatives was established in 1993 with an endowment of $50,000 from the Hyde Park Cooperative Society in memory of its long-time General Manager, Howard Bowers.

The Fund’s purposes are: to promote and develop consumer-owned food cooperatives and consumer cooperative education in the US, to encourage and train people to pursue careers in the management of consumer-owned food cooperatives, and to provide education programs for staff, board and managers of consumer cooperatives.

The generosity of the food cooperative community has increased the endowment to over $200,000, made possible two investments into cooperative financial institutions that have loaned this money to food cooperatives, and enabled the Fund to give out over $250,000 in grants. Approximately 20 people attend the annual CCMA meeting every year on scholarships from the Bowers Fund.

Howard Bowers spent much of his career in a co-op a lot like ours, in a community so much like ours that the New York Times reports there are “drum circles, organic gardens on every corner” and “wonders how many hacky sack stores the neighborhood supports.”

Howard Bowers dedicated his life to the consumer cooperative movement, that’s who he was.

This month GreenStar will devote Saturday, Oct. 9, Howard Bowers Day, to him.

  • By Brandon Kane,
General Manager

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