Published: September 5, 2019

Profile - Father Phil Bowers

Jim Russell, executive vice president emeritus for Delta Tau Delta fraternity and 1975 graduate of Purdue University, shared following story he wrote about Father Phil Bowers (Alpha Delta/Purdue 1975). Bowers served as chapter advisor at Purdue for more than two decades as well as one term on the Grand Chapter, fittingly as International Chaplain. He is a recipient of numerous Theta Chi awards, including the George T. Kilavos Alumni Award, the Earl D. Rhodes Theta Chi for Life Award, and the fraternity’s top honor, the Distinguished Service Award.

A routine trip to the hospital more than 45 years ago changed the course of Phil Bowers’ life.

That visit to see a convalescing Purdue football player led to hundreds of fraternal associations at Purdue and far beyond. To this day, it has enriched his life beyond measure. The circle of influence built on those relationships is profound. 

Quite simply, it’s the simple and ancient tale of why being of service to others enriches the giver at least as much as the receiver. 

Father Phil Bowers (L) with Associate Executive Director/Chief Financial Officer Jim Powell (R)

In 1972, Father Phil Bowers, a Catholic priest of the Maryknoll religious order fresh from a posting in a remote area of the Philippines, was dispatched by his superior to serve in campus ministry at Purdue University. Upon arrival on the staff at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, he was assigned to a number of campus constituencies by the long-time pastor, Leo Piguet. Among those were the Purdue University Student Health Center (PUSH) and duties as chaplain of the Purdue football team.

Those assignments intersected early on their journey when Bowers popped into PUSH while making rounds room by room. Among the patients he visited that day was a Purdue football player recovering from an injury. 

That short conversation led to a dinner invitation to Theta Chi for the following Wednesday night. Bowers, then and now is a genial sort with a special gift for storytelling. It speaks loudly to his Irish ancestry. He was so popular at that first meal at 800 David Ross Road he was soon invited back. More than once.

Within weeks, the hook had been set. Deep. The chapter needed a new chapter advisor to succeed Jack Fenwick, an agronomy professor who was leaving Purdue. 

The men asked Phil Bowers.

“What would I need to do?” asked Bowers, a native of Philadelphia who did not have an undergraduate fraternity experience. “I had absolutely no clue what the responsibilities were. They said, ‘oh, you just need to come to dinner on Wednesday nights.’ That sounded easy enough so I agreed.”

If the men set a good hook, he was open to accepting it. His on the job training as a volunteer fraternity advisor played well with his pastoral bent. Yet he makes it clear that from the outset he gained more than he gave from those young men. 

Bowers also realized there was a little more to it than just appearing at dinner and going to the chapter meetings. His eyes twinkle when he reminisces about those Wednesday night dinners in the first few months as an advisor. It takes time to build relationships and they did.

“While I was able to make most chapter meetings, I made it a point to stay quiet until giving my report at the end. My real work was outside the meetings. That’s when you lay the seed.” 

Within a year, a bid for membership was extended. Bowers accepted. Nearing age 40, he was a new brother of Theta Chi Fraternity and its Alpha Delta Chapter. His willingness to say yes rather naively led to a relationship with Theta Chi that continues into his 80s.

In addition to Purdue duties for Theta Chi, he served four years on the fraternity’s national board and remains an abiding influence at Theta Chi gatherings. The fraternity has honored him with its two highest honors, the Theta Chi For Life Award and the Distinguished Service Award.

His formal service to the Alpha Delta Chapter reached 21 years before a new challenge arrived. His departure from the chapter and active ministry at Purdue came when he took a new assignment in 1993 at the three-year-old Holy Spirit Parish near Geist Reservoir in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers with its exploding population.

While the new posting uprooted him 72 miles after two decades of total immersion in all things Boilermaker, in reality he has never left Purdue nor the thousands of students, faculty, staffers, alumni and parents he encountered well beyond his core ministerial obligations. His extended flock today includes hundreds of Theta Chis, other Greeks and former students, athletes and coaches, and Purdue colleagues beyond count. 

Regardless of faith he has befriended them, counseled them in times of challenge during college days and well beyond, married them, baptized their children, buried their parents. Far beyond his professional ministry or voluntary fraternal duties, this good counselor has led a life of influence based on relationships.

“Life is all about relationships,” he said with a deep conviction over a recent Panera breakfast at 7 a.m. on a sunny Saturday not far from his former parish.

It didn’t take a keen observer that morning to underscore his life’s ethos. Before and after his meal accompanied by brisk one-on-one conversation, he was the star of the room. Moving from table to table, he was offered greetings and well wishes. He certainly was no stranger to the vast majority of those early risers of various ages.

It’s obvious he remains a “draw” several years after his official retirement. He continues to minister informally in that setting as well as serving as a fill-in priest to cover vacations and to preside at funerals of former parishioners and friends. 

Now a fraternity man for 45 years and a priest for 55, he most definitely has observations about today’s world in general and young people in particular.

“So many kids today are a one or a two in the family. They haven’t had the benefit of being from a big family to learn give and take,” he reflects. He believes the opportunity afforded by living in a community setting offered by sororities, fraternities and cooperatives teaches much-needed life skills useful far beyond college years. 

He also encourages alumni of those organizations to share their time, skills and wisdom in whatever way they can. “Students need guidance. To serve as an officer of a self-governed group is something they’ve never done before. Having someone to bounce ideas with or just vent is so valuable.”

Although his days as a chapter advisor and national fraternity officer are two decades in the past, he well remembers how he tried to gain insights into the men.

“Helping out in the kitchen cleaning up during lunch or after dinner was a great way to find out what was on the minds of the guys,” he recalled.

With more than 100 men often in the mix at Purdue, an advisor’s time may be restricted to interacting with the key executive officers and not enough of the rank and file. He enjoyed the easy give and take of the kitchen setting . . . and also knew the cook had plenty of helpful insights, too. 

He could be a bit devious as well, particularly near the end of new member periods.

“I also liked to drive over to the house, make a few rounds and then disappear. I’d just slip out the back door and walk back to St. Tom’s. But the car was still in the lot. It made the guys a little nervous. ‘His car’s here but where’s Father Phil?’ I’d walk back the next day and pick it up. Those were great days.”

As for today’s students, he reiterates their often unstated but obvious need for adult wisdom, particularly from outside their immediate family.

“Kids today have been brought up with more emotion than intelligence,” he said. "It’s all about feelings. They need mentors.”

Don’t we all? Phil Bowers is still mentoring. It’s his gift.