BY MARCY SHORTUSE – We lost another one of our island mothers on Sunday, July 5, as Louise Bowe slipped away from congestive heart failure. Other than for a few years her entire life was spent on the island, and while she was a quiet, understated woman her impact on Gasparilla Island was profound.
Mary Louise Speer Bowe was born on September 2, 1925 in Bartow to Troy and Thelma Speer, in the home of her maternal grandparents, Anna and William Sprott. Her brother, William Troy Speer, was also born at home in Arcadia on Sept. 3, 1927.
When Louise was 3 the family moved to Boca Grande, in 1930. Her father worked as a mechanic for Jeff Gaines in a garage where The Barnichol now stands, and her mother was the Postmistress of the island from 1954 to 1968. They lived upstairs over the old drug store, which was on the corner on the south side of the Kozy Kitchen (where Michael Saunders Realty is located now).
The family moved to Placida for a time when Louise was 5. Her grandfather owned and operated the ferry boat that went back and forth from Boca Grande to Placida, and he had a big storage garage where people could store their cars if they didn’t want to bring them to the island. There was a small convenience store on the north end of the garage, and Louise’s mom and dad took care of it. They lived in the historic railroad house that was moved from Placida Road to the bicycle trailhead near the Gulf Cove Publix.
When Louise was 11 she started playing piano and organ for the local churches, and continued to do so until she was well into her 70s, when she had to retire due to vision problems. The island had a shortage of piano players at that time, and sometimes she played for all of the churches. Her daughter Anita said they timed their services so she could play at all of them. Louise’s daughter Joy also started playing when she was 8 because there was still a shortage of piano players, and when the post office told Louise she would have to start working on Sundays, Joy sometimes filled in.
Louise loved music of any kind. When Joy was tiny she remembers sitting on the floor next to the piano bench, watching from below, and that was what inspired her to play. She remembered Louise listening to everything from country music to Frank Sinatra, 40s music and ragtime, classical, and, in particular, Eddie Arnold.
Louise also had a love for horses. When she was young, not long before she got married, she worked at the Fust Library and made enough money to stop by a small farm on the island and ride the horses.
Louise started at the post office in 1942 and retired in 1985. A crowd of about 50 people threw her a party when she left. So many knew her from that job, and yet they didn’t know her. She was somewhat shy and kept to herself, even as a young woman.
So how did a beautiful, young, quiet girl end up with a devil-may-care boy from Happy, Texas? Louise met Gene on a double date, when he was stationed on the island in the Coast Guard during World War II. She had been set up with another boy, and Gene and Louise’s cousin, Sarah Pouncey Peach, were actually together on that date. By the end of the night, however, a spark had been ignited.
Eventually the quiet girl who loved babies and animals married the social butterfly named Gene, and together they had five children. During his time with the Coast Guard the family lived in the house beside the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse (he maintained the light for the Coast Guard). Then Gene got a job with the railroad and they lived on CSX property at the south end for many years, when there was nothing but woods and railroad workers housing there.
Throughout the years Louise and Gene played important roles in the community. She, of course, with playing music for the church services and the post office, and Gene as a sheriff’s deputy, an ambulance driver and as a maintenance foreman at the old phosphate port after his service in the Coast Guard. In 1944 they rode out a horrible no-name hurricane in the old Boca Grande Hotel, which used to be located near where the Range Light stands. The island was flooded from once side to the other from winds that were 150 miles per hour or more.
And through all the years the quiet and introverted Louise kept to herself and kept busy with her greatest loves – books, music, babies and animals. She always had dogs, and she always took in as many babies as she could. Her daughters said there were so many babies that Louise took in, they had lost count. It didn’t have to be family, just anyone who was down and out, or just needed a moment to themselves. Some stayed with her a few days, some a few weeks or months, one even stayed two years.
“Gene and Clyde (Carol’s husband) were very good friends so we would cook out together all the time,” Carol said. “We sometimes would pack everyone up and take the boat to Anna Maria Island, to a restaurant called The Buccaneer. Imagine driving that far now just to go out to eat? But it was just good company. Most of the time Louise stayed home, though, and tended her babies and her own business. I’m sad to see her go … there aren’t many of us left in Boca Grande anymore.”
Gene and Louise’s son, Dale, passed away years ago. Two of their daughters – Anita and Joy – still live in the immediate area, as does their son Harold. Daughter Amanda lives out of state. Debbie Bowe is the “sixth” child, but is not Louise’s biological child; she is actually Dale’s wife. Debbie lost her mother just before she lost Dale and Louise told her, “I’m your mother now.” And once you were part of Louise’s family, you were family forever.
When Louise’s mother passed away in 1987 they moved in her home on Palm Avenue, and that was her last home on the island where she lived for almost nine decades. Last year she decided it was time to move, and she went to South Gulf Cove. She loved to look out the back door of her new home while sitting with her dog, watching birds, reading her books and drinking her coffee.
The final days of Louise’s life were good. She stayed in her bedroom most days and enjoyed every minute of the solitude. Anita was staying there the day that Louise went into the hospital, which was the last day she was home.
“She called me on the phone, even though she was right in the next room, and said she needed her oxygen,” Anita said. “It just didn’t help her, and she said I should probably call an ambulance.”
Louise went from the hospital to spending just three days in a local hospice, where she passed. It was a relatively quick and decent passing for a sweet, loving woman who showed the island what quiet resolve, strength and love really are.
See Louise’s obituary and service times for this weekend on this site under “obituaries.”