Olney Odyssey #2 – Grandmother Anne S. Bowman and My Life’s Path


Correction: After the Forum posted Olney Odyssey #1, Jeff Crosby, the retired President of IUE local 201 in Lynn Massachusetts, wrote in to say that Al Coulthard Sr. played a key leadership role in the early days of Local 201, but he noted that as far as he has discovered in his research, Coulthardt was a socialist not a communist. Thanks to Brother Crosby for the correction and thanks to him for his years of service to the working class.

“External causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change” On Contradiction, Mao Tse Tung 1937

Some baby boomers were propelled down the road to working class radicalism by the clash between the values that the “greatest generation” nurtured in us and the external social realities of racism and war.  Each of our journeys is unique and yet each is the same.

My father, Peter B. Olney Jr., was one of those young men who in 1943, fresh out of high school, enlisted. He was a medic and while he saw much, he said little but for one story. He told me of an incident when the driver of a flatbed truck popped the clutch lurching the truck forward and throwing the soldier standing on the fantail to the ground. That soldier was Black and the white driver roared with laughter. My Dad rushed the cab, grabbed the driver by the neck and punched him in the face. “Don’t you ever f…ing do that again,” he said. I will never forget that story and what it taught me.

Through sports my father taught us a lot about values. As manager he enraged Little League parents when he insisted on playing all the team members even if it meant losing a close one. He made sure the football was equally distributed to all ages in the family touch football games.  My youngest cousin, Sarah, would always be dramatically escorted into the end zone by a phalanx of the biggest males that warded off any members of the opposing team. My Dad would vex and perplex other fathers who were obsessed with winning even in family touch football.

At home honesty and integrity were taught by example and never compromised. My mother, Elinor Bowman Olney is the same as my Dad, although she could be tougher.  I remember her actually threatening to wash out my mouth with soap for uttering some cuss words. She is a no-nonsense New Englander who revels in telling me on the phone every time it snows and ices over in Massachusetts that, “We will survive, we are a hearty people and used to it”. She also has a great sense of irony and humor. I think it was three Christmases in a row in the early Seventies that she received a Mao Tse Tung calendar from me and each year with a twinkle in her eye she exclaimed that, “How did you know I needed this calendar. What a wonderful surprise.”

“She had marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and with King and Walter Reuther in Washington, DC in August of 1963”

Values in the home led us to challenge hypocrisy in the world and to seek big answers. These were the bases of change fostered at a very young age, but ironically it was my Grandmother’s choice of Sunday school that sent me on my path to the working class.

Until 1963 when I went off to a summer camp for two weeks in Ferry Beach, Maine, my connection with my grandmother, Anne Stewart Bowman was very traditional. Sundays and holidays were a time to visit the Bowman house at 87 Cedar Street in Malden, Massachusetts. Grandmother always put out a fine traditional meal topped off with a homemade baked pie. The house was big. It was great to roam around in with a wooden standup bowling alley in the back room that my sister Anne, my brother Steve and I entertained ourselves on…. and fought over. The Malden house had a tell tale aroma to it that followed Grandmother and Grandfather all over the world so that when I visited them in 1972 on Via Sistina in Rome I could close my eyes and imagine with my nose that I was back in their Malden house and a child again. Grandfather enjoyed listening to his vast classical and opera LP collection and took particular relish in playing my sister, brother and I the first Beatles album before we even knew who the British mop heads were.

But during those two weeks in ’63 at Ferry Beach at the mouth of the Saco River I experienced something that was to happen to me many times in the more than thirty years after. I was introduced to a woman named Alice Harrison who was a friend of my grandmother’s and the Director of Youth Programs for the Unitarian Universalist Association on Beacon Street in Boston. Alice puzzled over my last name and she asked if I was Elinor’s son. I said yes. She then exclaimed, “Why you are Anne Bowman’s grandson.”

Those summers in the mid sixties at Ferry Beach were discovery days filled with the fervor of the civil rights movement as Unitarian Universalist (U-U) ministers returned from the the South to tell us of their adventures and spur us on to activism. One of those ministers, James Reeb (here and here), was murdered by a white racist mob in 1965 in Alabama.  I discovered that my grandmother knew Reeb and all of these activists. She had marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and with King and Walter Reuther in Washington, DC in August of 1963. In later years I loved listening to her recount her stories of marching and protesting for civil rights and justice. But her mentoring always included the stern admonishment to “Be sure and get your degree.”

In 1995 just before my grandmother passed away I attended a service at the U-U church in San Francisco. I was browsing in their study after church and I came across a book entitled, The Larger Faith, a Short History of American Universalism by Charles Howe. I rushed quickly to the chapter on the 1961 merger between the Universalists and the Unitarians and there found a reference to my grandmother: “Anne Bowman, who had been elected secretary of the new association, had done such an excellent job that in 1965 she won the denomination’s highest honor, its Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism.”

“My grandmother’s simple and practical decision to enroll her children in a Universalist Sunday school, her skills as a nutritionist and her basic sense of fair play created the environment within which I found my life’s path.”

How did the daughter of a Scots Irish immigrant to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania become a top leader of America’s most liberal and socially active church denomination? Anne Stewart grew up in a strict Presbyterian household in Beaver Falls.  Her father, David Stewart, was the superintendent of the Jones and Laughlin Steel mill. If suitors came calling for Anne or her sisters, the first question from her father to the young man would be, “What parish were you raised in?” Needless to say the local Catholic parish was the wrong answer and entrance was denied.

My grandmother studied nutrition at Carnegie Institute of Technology and graduated and then met my grandfather J. Russell Bowman at a summer session at Edinboro State College, where he was a teacher and she the campus nutritionist. They moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he received his doctorate in English at Harvard and then relocated to the working class suburb of Malden during the depression. Grandfather became an English teacher at Malden High School, and grandmother a homemaker raising her children, the oldest of whom was my mother born in 1927. In 1934 it was time to find a Sunday school for the children and there was no room at the Presbyterian Church so grandmother made a practical decision to enroll my mother and my uncles in the nearby Universalist Church. She became active in the women’s federation as she cooked the meals for the Sunday Socials and rose to a national leadership position before the merger of the U-U in 1961 when she became the national secretary of the association’s board of directors.

My grandfather Bowman, the descendant of Pennsylvania Deutsch immigrants, grew up in Lebanon PA. He was a brilliant man who did not suffer fools and ideologues. He had a particular distrust of the Catholic Church, partly because a priest in Malden had launched an attack on his “Good Reading and Discussion Group”. This was a great books discussion group that he led from 1948 to 1965 when he retired. During the height of the McCarthy period in the early fifties this priest questioned whether the readings were sufficiently patriotic and loyal. In 1965 my grandmother was honored at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Boston at the Unitarian Universalist Association Annual Banquet. She received “the annual award” on the occasion of her retirement for her service to the church. The theme of the evening was the newly emerging “ecumenical” movement and many other leaders of other faiths were honored also.  But his eminence, Richard Cardinal Cushing, the Archbishop of Boston paid eloquent tribute to my grandmother. My grandfather Russell had to sit thru the Catholic tribute to his wife and stew over his stew.

My grandmother’s simple and practical decision to enroll her children in a Universalist Sunday school, her skills as a nutritionist and her basic sense of fair play created the environment within which I found my life’s path. As I wrote when she passed in 1995, “Anne Stewart Bowman was a mover and shaker and a delicious pie maker!” Thank you grandma.

In Olney Odyssey #3 I will recount my two years at Harvard playing, football, protesting the war and studying Italian.

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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4 thoughts on Olney Odyssey #2 – Grandmother Anne S. Bowman and My Life’s Path

  1. This is Peter’s uncle (son of the grandparents he describes) and I feel I should respond to M.J. Boylan’s comments. Although totally sound and reasonable, I do not feel that they apply to my parents–and the misunderstanding is greatly due to me. Peter had turned to me about a couple of points he brings up and I failed to make things clear to him. But for starters, my parents were in no way anti-immigrant or prejudiced against any ethnic group. Frankly, I cannot recall them ever singling out an individual or group by their ethnic or religious origins. We lived in Malden, Mass., a very diverse community and were surrounded and dealt with people of many backgrounds and I don’t recall my parents ever saying a word about or against any of them in terms of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. As to Peter’s statement that his grandmother’s mother was anti-Irish (or anti-Catholic)–I have no idea where he learned this. Yes, she was Scotch-Irish who had emigrated to Penn.from Northern Ireland and she may have had “a thing” about the Catholics in Ireland, but I never heard my mother refer to this. My parents simply didn’t talk about anyone in terms of group affiliation. Well, yes, Nazis. And my father didn’t care for Boston Brahmins–he considered them snobs. And he didn’t have much liking for Republicans–but in our day they were mostly Protestants! But in all instances, it was the conduct of these people, their actions and speech, that he disliked.
    So, about the Cardinal Cushing story that Peter got from me–but in a way that I failed to make clear. I told Peter how his grandmother got that award at that big banquet at which Cardinal Cushing was the chief speaker-it was promoting ecumenicalism–and I probably told Peter something to the effect that my father had lived to see the day when he had to sit and listen to Cardinal Cushing pay tribute to his wife. Peter turned this into a somewhat more colorful–“stew in his stew.” But what lay behind my remark? Well, I told Peter that my father never thought much of Cushing–but for almost the opposite reason of being anti-Irish or anti-Catholic. My father was an atheist who had little time for any organized religion–including the Universalist Church in which my mother was so active! But he did not single out Cushing as an Irish-Catholic. No, it was because when he was promoted to Cardinal my father thought he was not worthy of being a Cardinal! In his own way my father had great respect for the history and ideals of this great institution and Cushing was not his image of Cardinal. You have only to read the opening paragraph in the biography of Cushing in Wikipedia and it expresses exactly why: Someone states that Cushing “behaved more like a ward politician than a high church cleric.” That was the side of Richard Cardinal Cushing that my father showed not “disgust” but disdain. He was a “diamond in the rough” and my father saw only the “rough.” (Besides, as the Wikipedia also reports, his Latin was “atrocious”! That my father could never forgive.)
    No, my father disliked, disdained, deplored only one thing: people’s conduct. The local Catholic priest who opposed my father’s choice of books–all my father opposed was this priest’s actions and words. He didn’t care what religion he was affiliated with.

    I apologize for going on at such length but I wanted to set the record straight. It seemed important to let readers of Peter’s memoir know that his own lack of prejudice, his acceptance of all people, was also the way of his mother’s parents. I was not going to comment on Peter’s choice of words so I am grateful that M.J. Boylan provided the excise to do so.

  2. Three Mao calendars in succession? I believe that qualifies as elder abuse.
    p.s. You came from good people, Pete. I’m enjoying the stories.

  3. This is great stuff, Peter!!

    One of the things that jumps out is the apparent dichotomy between trying to advance the cause of civil rights (for black people, but presumably for all) while maintaining a “do not enter” attitude toward those of another faith, the Catholics. Of course, you clearly say it was your grandmother’s parents who had this attitude, but then your grandmother married a man who evidently felt the same way.

    In some families, this anti-Catholic sentiment was basically anti-immigrant (in particular, anti-Irish and anti-Italian.) I wonder where it came from in your family (and where it went!) You may not have any light to shed on that, but the question mightl pop up in other readers’ minds. Something to puzzle about!

    Keep up the good work.

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