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Our Neighbors...Esko science teacher gives lessons in life

Recently retired Esko science teacher Pat Bowman guides students Nathan Sundae and Jenna Calverly in the science lab. Contributed Photo1 / 4
Pat and Carrie Bowman enjoy spending time in the outdoors together. Pat, who is originally from Cook, enjoys hunting and fishing and plans to do more of both in his retirement. Contributed Photo2 / 4
An interest in science runs in the family, as Pat Bowman shares his knowledge with his granddaughters Megan and Emily. Contributed Photo3 / 4
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You might say that recently retired Esko science teacher Patrick Bowman is "old school." With 44 years of teaching under his belt, he certainly qualifies. But the fact that Bowman was just as excited about teaching at the end of his career as he was at the start makes him a cut above.

"In 1969, Mr. Bowman walked through the doors of EHS to his very first teaching job," wrote student reporter Korina Borash in Esko's Corner Connection. "Now, every day he walks through those same doors with the same passion as he did when he first began his teaching journey."

Bowman has likewise been described by other students as "really caring," "always open to answering my questions," and "wants everyone to succeed."

That sort of high praise is, you might say, "straight from the horse's mouth." Having that sort of impact on students is what drove him all those years.

"Those are the little things that kept me going," he reflected, "and those are the little things I will miss."

The oldest of five kids, Bowman helped out on the family hobby farm and learned the value of hard work at a young age. Perhaps that's why he didn't shy away from going on to college.

"Growing up in northern Minnesota, there were pretty much three opportunities for jobs -- go to work in the mines, go to school or cut wood!" he said with a laugh.

He graduated from Bemidji State College with a Bachelor of Science degree in teaching biology and chemistry and sent out seven letters requesting applications for teaching positions. He had a roommate from Esko who always boasted of the small town's attributes, so Bowman decided to include it among his letters. Esko was the first to reply.

"I signed the contract, and I've been at Esko my entire career!" Bowman said with a smile.

He and his wife, Carrie, ended up living exactly 57 steps from the door of the school -- "I actually counted them in a thunderstorm!" he said, singing the praises of the small, rural community. "We have more trouble with wild game around here than I do at my hunting camp. The rabbits crawl under the fence and the deer jump over it!"

Bowman estimated they've saved roughly $200,000 over the years in transportation, gas and other expenses.

"When you walk to work, you don't worry about having a new, dependable car," he explained.

When he started teaching, Bowman was assigned to seventh-grade math.

"To show you the differences between education now and then," said Bowman, "I did not have a math degree. The superintendent said, 'If you got through chemistry, there is no doubt in my mind that you can teach seventh-grade math!'"

He also taught two ninth-grade physical science classes and two chemistry classes.

"In a smaller system like ours, people are generally working with students of different ages," he explained.

Early in Bowman's teaching career, the fire siren went off one day, and as he looked out the window the fire trucks were going out of the fire hall and he could see a big, black column of smoke.

"I thought I should probably get on the fire department because I was so close," he said.

He went on to serve on the Esko Volunteer Fire Department for almost 23 years.

"The school was gracious enough to let me do it," he said. "If the alarm went off, I would send a student to the office to tell them that I had left for a fire. Someone else would then step up and cover my class while I was gone.That was very rewarding and led to many, many good feelings as a result of helping people.

"It's one of the more dangerous volunteer jobs you'll ever have," he went on to reflect. "Carrie's dad was a physician, and I would sometimes talk with him about how poorly prepared I felt to be dealing with some of the things we faced, but he told me, 'Never feel that way, because you represent hope.'"

When staff and students think of Bowman, one of the first words to come out of their mouths is often "dedicated."

"He put a lot of work into what he did," attested his wife. "He'd go back to the school every night, Monday through Thursday and then again on Sunday, to get ready for his class lessons."

Bowman had two big white boards in the front of his classroom -- one for chemistry and one for life science. He would write out the lesson plans for each by hand, often filling up the boards.

"It would have been so much easier for me to do the PowerPoint thing," he said. "But in watching PowerPoint presentations, in order to get where you want to be, you have to go fairly fast. With some of the students, before they finish the first screen you're on to the next one and they miss so much. Writing on the board was labor intensive, but the results I got on tests were unbelievable, so it was well worth it."

One of the things Bowman especially prided himself on was showing up at work every day. When he first started, teachers would get 12 days of sick leave, which was eventually upped to 15.

"In those 44 years, I think I could count on both hands the number of days I actually missed," he said. "You make a commitment to do the job and that's huge. I told the superintendent that he probably got a couple of extra years out of me because I didn't use the days!"

Bowman said his favorite part of the job was working with the students and making close connections with them. He said he tried to respect each one of them and would never put a student down.

"The closeness that you get with some of the students is unbelievable, and it was hard to see them go at the end of the year," he said.

Bowman said he has always had a reputation for being strict, and he said he thinks some of the kids were warned by their parents, "You're going to have Mr. Bowman this year, so just deal with it!"

He was especially strict with his own three children.

"When Alan was playing football the year of the Megastorm, there were no places to play around here so they played in the Metrodome," Bowman related. "They took charter buses down there and didn't get back into Esko until around 2 in the morning. Alan was one of only four seniors who went to school that day. We insisted that if he was going to play sports, he had to show up at school because it wasn't an excuse to miss classes. As it turned out, he went to shop class and since there were no other students there, he and the shop teacher finished up a very nice gun cabinet that he had been working on. He has that in his home yet today."

He's also proud of the fact that he stressed the value of hard work.

"What I'd say I gave most of my students was a work ethic, stressing that they can accomplish good things if they work at it," he said.

When his daughter made it into St. Scholastica's physical therapy program despite the fact she wasn't at the top of her graduating class, her professor said her work ethic was so strong he knew she'd make it through. One of his other sons also went on to become a physical therapist, and the other, a physician.

"Much of that was due to focus and hard work," Bowman said.

As anyone could well imagine, Bowman saw a great number of changes over the years that he taught.

"I've gone on record as saying that kids today don't have the same life experiences as previous students did," he related, going on to give an example of an ill-fated chemistry experiment where they were going to find out the percentage of water in popcorn. The directions were to put 20 kernels of popcorn in a beaker with a little bit of cooking oil, cover it with aluminum foil and use a common pin to poke little holes in it. They were then to put it on a Bunsen burner, pop the popcorn and find the difference in the starting weight and the ending weight to discover the percentage.

"There were 30 kids in the classroom, and some of the kids in the back used their pens or their fingers to punch the holes," related Bowman. "So instead of having little holes they had great, big holes, and instead of a little bit of cooking oil they had three-quarters of an inch. When they put it over the Bunsen burner, as the popcorn popped it spilled out all of the oil onto the flame of the Bunsen burner. The beakers became coated in oil, so as the students grabbed them they slipped out of their hands. On that particular day, the students broke four beakers and I put out six fires!"

He said no one got hurt that day, but they just didn't have the life experiences that students once had.

"I asked one of the students how they make popcorn at home, and he said, 'We just put that paper bag in the microwave!'"

On the other side of the coin, Bowman said kids today are very skilled at using their electronics, much more so than he or some of the other teachers.

"The ability to look up things on the Internet and do the research is a plus, but it's got to be managed," he said. At the beginning of the year, I'd hear, 'Can I use my cell phone for the calculator?' and I'd tell them to go ahead. Pretty soon, they were sending answers back and forth through their cell phones. How do you deal with that? We figured out ways, but I was blindsided at first.

"For some people, cell phones are fantastic," he continued, "but for little Johnny, who can't sit still because he can only play games on his cell phone, not so much."

Bowman said he's been asked about the secret of Esko's considerable success.

"Well, there is no secret -- it's our parents," he said. "Our parents are involved with their students and they support our school. When parents help their kids, that means so much."

As Bowman now eases into retirement, a time which student reporter Borash referred to as "bittersweet" for the rest of the school, he continues to maintain the positive attitude that has always carried him through.

"Each day when he came home from school," said Carrie, "I'd ask him if he had a good day. He'd always say, 'Every day is a good day!'"