Change was a topic that 96-year-old Bernie Fowler would address time and again Sunday in remarks before he and his “Fowler Followers” would take their annual wade into the waters of the Patuxent River.
The most significant change at this year’s gathering was that it’s the first since the passing of the former state senator’s wife, Betty.
It was long-time attendee and friend Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) who first addressed the loss.
“As we thank Bernie for all that he has done, we remember his loss,” Hoyer said. “Our loss. Betty is not here. It is the first time she has not been here. It is sad, but what is a happy memory is the difference that Betty made as a partner of Bernie Fowler’s in this effort. The extraordinary wife that she was. The extraordinary mother that she was. And friend, and neighbor, and fellow citizen. We miss Betty.”
Fowler addressed her absence by reminiscing about her at last year’s event.
“She gave her speech, and at the end, she turned around and looked at each one of you and said, ‘I want you to know to one thing: I love each and every one of you.’ And she meant that because her bywords were ‘faith, hope and love.’ She was a lady that stuck to her guns on that. Faith, hope, and love. She believed them wholeheartedly,” he said.
Faith, hope, and love were the axioms of the 32nd gathering before the wade in at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.
Hoyer touched on those words as he thanked Fowler for his continued upkeep of the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay.
“The Patuxent is better for Bernie Fowler. Calvert is better for Bernie Fowler. Maryland is better for Bernie Fowler,” Hoyer said.
He then touched on another loss that coincided with this year’s wade in, the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. While Fowler was not in the wave that invaded Normandy, he did serve his country in that war. Hoyer presented him with a framed commemorative stamp from the National World War II Memorial.
“I want to give it to Bernie, because not only is he an extraordinary supporter of, and raising our consciousness of the Patuxent River and the environment, but he has also been an extraordinary supporter of our men and women in uniform throughout his life,” Hoyer said. “And his life has been a life of service to his county. Men and women lost their lives, preserving our democracy, and we honor them, and we remember them. Bernie, we remember you because not only have you helped preserve our democracy, but you have helped preserve the wonderful legacy of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. Thank you.”
The rain and wind that pelted the white tent that housed the speakers on Sunday subsided before the slow walk in the Patuxent to unofficially measure the clarity of the water via Fowler’s long-running “sneaker index.”
Another thing that changed this year was Fowler had to forgo his traditional sneakers in favor of hip waders.
“I didn’t have any sneakers on as I got in a fight with a rose bush,” he said. “I was afraid to get any water on it and get an infection. It was hard to see [my feet] because [the shoes] were the color of the sand.”
Last year, 36 inches was the mark at which Fowler could no longer see his shoes. This year, the measurement was 47 inches, thanks in part to Fowler’s trouble seeing his shoes.
The battle to get the river cleaned up was something Fowler addressed before he got in the water.
“I’m not a happy warrior. I started in 1969, and we’ve been battling ever since. Governor [Harry] Hughes told me the river would be cleaned up in less than 20 years. It didn’t happen. He was a great man, but it didn’t happen.”
Hughes, a bay advocate from the Eastern Shore, died in March.
Gayle Bylan was the day’s final speaker. Bylan is a third-grade teacher at Sunderland Elementary School and has had Fowler speak to her classes on different occasions.
“In the late 1980s, he worked very hard to get approved by the state board of education, environmental ed in all public schools in Maryland,” she said. “It is huge. It is something I’m sure many states do not have.”
She spoke of how environmental education influenced her classes and how, while it is great, those lessons need to be taught outside the classroom as well.
“Through our actions and what we do, we need to let people know that they don’t know,” Bylan said. “People need to see by our actions what needs to be done.”
Fowler would return to close out the event, harkening back to the idea of love.
“Love is what we need a lot more of. I don’t want a D [grade] for our Patuxent River. It is what it has right now. That is not good; we have got to do better. Love would make a great difference.”