Hydrology Professor Dr. Rob Bowman, 1950-2009

Dr. Robert Bowman pictureLEMITAR, N.M., June 8, 2009 – New Mexico Tech lost a special individual Saturday, June 6. Hydrology professor Dr. Rob Bowman passed away at his home in Lemitar with his wife and son by his side.

A fund is being established in Rob Bowman's memory.  To make a contribution, please make out a check to "New Mexico Tech" and write "Rob Bowman fund" on the memo line.  Please send it to:  Advancement Office, 801 Leroy Place, Socorro, New Mexico, 87801.

Dr. Bowman was the heart and soul of the Earth and Environmental Science Department, his friendly face wreathed in smiles, kind and caring; and, now, terribly missed.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Socorro General Hospital hospice program in Rob’s name.

New Mexico Tech President Dr. Daniel H. Lopez said Bowman represented the best of the university.

“Dr. Rob Bowman was a gentleman professor,” Lopez said. “In the end, we’ll miss him greatly. He was an important member of the New Mexico Tech community and someone who all of us greatly respected, loved and admired.”

Bowman was an extraordinarily well-rounded man, Lopez said. He balanced the rigors of teaching, researching and mentoring with grace and professionalism.

“He was thoughtful, bright, engaging and totally dedicated to New Mexico Tech, especially the students,” Lopez said. “He worked hard to have the highest quality work that anyone could produce and he was very innovative.”

Dr. Bowman was born June 12, 1950, in Detroit to Ernest and Lois (Foote) Bowman. He is survived by his wife, Karen Bailey-Bowman, of their home in Lemitar; his son, Danny; two brothers, Donald and Douglas Bowman, both of Michigan; and a sister, Barbara Hobson of Georgia.

All across campus and around the world, word of Bowman’s passing, a week before his 59th birthday, generated emails and tributes and memories of a man who was widely respected for his knowledge, his insight, his commitment to education and the ideals inherent in that journey to understanding.

This, said his only child, Danny, “stands as the greatest testament to his life,” that he was revered and respected by legions of students and colleagues whose lives were enriched simply by the fact that he was here.

Graduate student Jaron Andrews had worked closely with Dr. Bowman as an undergraduate and, for the past year, as a hydrology master’s student.

“He was always professional and courteous,” Andrews said. “He was a model for all of us as what to be like as a professional person. He had a real love of what he was doing and shared that love through his teaching and research. He was a dedicated scientist, a wonderful teacher, and a great mentor.”

The Michigan native headed west in 1968, settling in at the University of California at Berkeley which he, a National Merit Scholar, had chosen as an alternative to an in-state school.

In a physics laboratory in Berkeley, he met his future wife, Karen Bailey, his eventual life partner – who was always late to class.
So what attracted the flame-haired coed to the tall Midwesterner?

“He was good-looking,” she said. “Tall, with long, blonde hair.”

And so they teamed up, the radio-pharmaceutical chemist and the teacher, off on life’s journey, an adventure that ultimately led them to New Mexico.

His was a curious life, basically on his own in his early teens, left to fill in the domestic gaps that his own life lacked.

Nothing was ever given to him, Karen said. When only 14, he was obligated to assist with the financial support of his family, and did so willingly and with the pragmatism that everyone who knew Rob recognized so well. He was able to talk to anyone, never arrogant, always cordial.

“He gave me the life he never had,” said Danny.

Rob and Karen worked in the Bay Area for a while living like students and saving money for a nine-month vacation through Europe. The couple returned stateside and resettled in the Bay Area where Karen earned a teaching certificate and Rob worked as a chemist.

For a profile written in 2008, Bowman had said, “We both felt we wanted to live in a less urban environment. I loved to work in chemistry, but grew tired of spending my days in a windowless lab.”

So the Bowman-Bailey duo quit their jobs and left on a great adventure.

“We sold off everything, bought a Volkswagen bus and took off on a three-month tour,” he had said. “We liked New Mexico and settled in Santa Fe, where I worked in construction for a year and Karen did odd jobs.”

The couple experienced the City Different in a style suited to the ‘70s – Karen spent a stint with the Santa Fe New Mexican and put her teaching skills to use; Rob worked as a janitor.

“It was fun, and we spent all of our savings in Santa Fe, but I missed science and being outside part of the time,” Rob had said.

He had a contact in the then-Agronomy Department at New Mexico State University, and in 1977 the couple headed south to Las Cruces. Bowman left NMSU in 1982 with a Ph.D. in soil chemistry. After a short stint in Phoenix, Bowman accepted a professorship at New Mexico Tech in 1987.

Dr. Rob Bowman on his 1953 tractor at home in Lemitar. (Photo by Valerie Kimble)

Dr. Bowman was able to accomplish his dreams though hard work and a belief that education is the key to security. He passed his beliefs on to hundreds of students who survive him.

Andrews said Bowman had an affinity and a love of basic chemistry.

Bowman was a chemist first and foremost, he of the meticulous lab books, chronicler of medications and timetables and such of that ilk; a walking dictionary of chemical interactions; a man who was adept at “mental math” – dare we say it? Better than most physicists!

Geophysics Professor Dr. Rick Aster succeeded Dr. Bowman as chairman of the Earth and Environmental Science Department at New Mexico Tech last year.

“Rob was one of the most generous, helpful, kind and even-tempered people I’ve worked with,” Aster said. “For someone like me, a younger professor, he was the perfect embodiment of a key mentor who makes other people’s careers more successful.”

One of Bowman’s internationally noted areas of focus was the use of zeolites, a type of naturally occurring porous mineral, for water treatment. Bowman employed modified zeolites for the removal of volatile organics from produced water in the petroleum industry and for the in situ removal of chlorinated solvents from contaminated groundwater. He and his students focused on a wide range of applications from small-scale operations in rural developing country communities, to large-scale operations for industry and large municipal water systems.

He also had a great interest in the solute budget and groundwater-surface water interactions of the Rio Grande that is the agricultural lifeblood of central New Mexico. Bowman had secured two patents and had two others pending. In recent months, he had been working with a Seattle company to market his patented processes on a global scale. Andrews has been working specifically on using zeolite  to remove arsenic from groundwater in Socorro.

One of his crowning achievements was in 2006, when Bowman hosted the International Natural Zeolite Association’s quadrennial conference, a weeklong event that brought 150 people to New Mexico Tech from 30 countries.

Andrews will continue Bowman’s research. He said Bowman’s collaborators and research partners have already expressed an interest in working together to keep Bowman’s vision alive.

Bowman was a prolific researcher and writer, co-authoring more than 60 journal articles and dozens of abstracts. He also was highly decorated. In 2006, he earned one of New Mexico Tech’s top honors, the Distinguished Research Award. In 2008, he won both the Faculty Award from the New Mexico Tech Student Association and the New Mexico Earth Science Achievement Award, presented at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.Rob Bowman picture in cap and gown

Dr. Robert Bowman in 2006 when he received the Distinguished Research Award during that year's commencement at New Mexico Tech. Photo by Edie Steinhoff

“I feel lucky to be here,” Bowman said about New Mexico Tech after winning the Achievement Award. “There are few places in the country where one can work in a top-notch academic environment in such a great setting. ... It’s the best of both worlds.”

Bowman lived on a small farm in Lemitar, north of Socorro, home to horses, chickens, a couple of cats and a 1953 tractor Rob tinkered with on weekends. The Bowman farm also boards horses and raises hay.

What was once a one-man department 60 years ago has come of age as today’s Earth and Environmental Science Department with its 22 full-time faculty, a long list of adjunct professors, and internationally recognized teaching and research activity. Bowman was integral to the blossoming of the department. He helped steer the combining of five programs – geology, geochemistry, hydrology, geophysics and environmental science – into today’s unified department.

“Earth science departments have evolved a lot; they’re more interdisciplinary now,” Bowman once said. “Our department is a wonderful place to work in, a very collegial environment. I’ve never been in a place where people take such pride in each other’s accomplishments. We like each other and many of us socialize outside work, and this cohesiveness is the strength of our department.”

Bowman rarely refused a request to be a guest speaker or lecturer. He presented his work at symposia, conferences and lectures several times every year. He also always kept a heavy course load, frequently teaching extra lectures or courses to advance the department.

Bowman also was active in the community. He lent his talents to the Middle Rio Grande basin study of groundwater and surface water with the Interstate Stream Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers. He was also one of the scientific leaders of a statewide effort to improve estimates of evapotranspiration in the Rio Grande riparian corridor.

He also served on the board of the Socorro Soil & Water Conservation District, overseeing development of the Socorro-Sierra Regional Water Plan, and in many other activities where he could apply his professional insight and desire to help his community.

Dr. Rob Bowman made lasting impressions on hundreds of colleagues, students, friends and neighbors. He will always be noted for his scientific contributions and dedication to excellence. But he will truly be remembered as a man – for his kindness, compassion, generosity and sincerity.

“He was the best guy,” said Jaron Andrews, one of his last graduate students. “It was hard to say goodbye.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich and Valerie Kimble