Bernie Fowler, Former Maryland Senator

In Memoriam

by Daniel Rosen, AICP, Resource Conservation Planner, with Kristen E, Humphrey, Local Assistance and Training Planner

Sometimes a person is so strongly associated with a place that it’s hard to think of one without the other. This is definitely true of Clyde Bernard “Bernie” Fowler, whose name will always be connected to the Patuxent River. A tireless advocate to protect the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay, the former state senator passed away on December 12, 2021 at 97 years old.

Fowler was the fourth of six children. His family moved to Broomes Island in Calvert County when he was one year old. “The river supported his family through the tough times of the [great] depression, and as Bernie grew up he learned the value of hard work helping his family make ends meet by working as a waterman, carpenter, and machinist.”[1]

At the beginning of World War II, he also worked as a machinist at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard and later served on a ship in the Pacific. After returning home he started a business, “Bernie’s Boats,” where he met Betty Lou, who would become his wife. Bernie and Betty Lou wed in 1949 and were married for 69 years before she died in 2018.

Fowler served as Calvert County Commissioner from 1970 to 1982 and as Maryland State Senator from 1983 to 1994. He used his positions to work for reducing pollution and improving water quality in the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay. “In 1977, he led three counties—Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s—to file a lawsuit against the state and federal government for not doing their part in following the Clean Water Act. They won and the tide started to turn” in favor of restoring the waterways.[2]

Fowler was a founding member of the Patuxent River Commission in 1980, quickly becoming the heart and soul of that organization. He led the Patuxent Charrette, which served as the foundation for the original 1984 Patuxent River Policy Plan. That work led to increased efforts to provide the same focus for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Perhaps Fowler is best known for devising a simple and popular method for demonstrating progress—or lack thereof—in the fight for a healthy Patuxent River: the annual “Wade-In.” As a young man in the 1950s, Bernie Fowler stood chest-deep in the Patuxent and was able to see his feet on the river bottom while netting blue crabs. A decade later, as development in its watershed polluted the Patuxent, Fowler could no longer see his feet through the murky water.

Based on this uniquely personal standard of measurement, in 1988, Fowler held his first Patuxent Wade-In to assess the clarity of the river. The depth at which he could no longer see his white sneakers playfully became known as the Sneaker Index, and was faithfully executed through  June, 2021. After leaving state government in the 1990s, Fowler continued advocating for the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake [3][4]

Fowler leaves behind an impressive family, and professional, legacy. He is survived by three daughters, one son, ten grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild. Undoubtedly, he will be greatly missed by his many friends, family, and the communities he served, but appropriately his name will forever be intertwined with that of the Patuxent River. He also leaves us with his motto, an indominable directive to, “Never, never, never give up.”


[1]   Southern Maryland Online, https://somd.com/announcements/obits/name/19791-Clyde-Bernard-(Bernie)-Fowler.html

[2]   Fowler, Cate. “What’s Up? Visionaries: Bernie Fowler.” What’s Up? Media, January 19, 2016. https://whatsupmag.com/news/up-visionaries-bernie-fowler/

[4]   “Bay Mourns Patuxent Champion, Former State Sen. Bernie Fowler.” Chesapeake Bay Magazine, December 14, 2021. https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/bay-mourns-patuxent-champion-former-state-sen-bernie-fowler/

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