Former State Senator Bernie Fowler. displays his wade-in sneakers on the bank of the Patuxent River (Photo: Maryland Department of Planning)
BALTIMORE (September 9, 2014)—Former State Senator Bernie Fowler never really intended to be a politician or the man known widely in Maryland as the sneaker guy.
Fowler's white high-tops became a visible symbol in his quest to draw attention to the Patuxent River, the 110-mile-long water body that runs the length of central Maryland. Starting in 1988, Fowler has hosted annual public wade-in events that provide an unofficial, yet highly understandable measure of the river's water quality.
Fowler, who served in the state legislature from 1983-1994, will be recognized tomorrow by Governor Martin O'Malley, who is bestowing a proclamation of appreciation to the nonagenarian at a meeting of the Patuxent River Commission (PRC), an organization the senator co-founded to enlist cooperative efforts in the seven counties through which the river flows. The governor's proclamation calls the wade-in event "an excellent outreach tool in engaging the general public and educating children and families about the importance of ensuring the river's restoration."
Back when Fowler was a kid growing up in Southern Maryland, he would wade up to his shoulders in the Patuxent and snatch blue crabs from the sea grasses growing on the river bottom. The years passed, and he could no longer see that far; in fact, he could only discern about two feet before his view was clouded by sediment.
His father, calling him "personable," persuaded his son to run for office. Fowler, a decorated World War II navy veteran, was a commissioner in Calvert County before becoming a state senator in 1983. Then came the wade-in.
"The water was getting cloudy, we knew there was something wrong," Fowler told staff from the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) in a video commemorating the 25th anniversary of the wade-in. "I used to be barefoot and wade out in the river and see my feet."
His friend, the late folk singer Tom Wisner, who some called the "Bard of the Chesapeake," suggested that they ritualize wading into the river, inviting a few hundred people to join them.
Fowler reached out to newspapers and was encouraged by their response. The event grew and, at its most successful, beckoned 450 waders. Fowler would wear white sneakers, bring a yard stick, and note the depth at which he could no longer detect a flash of white, the so-called "sneaker index."
Fowler was also among a group that sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 for failure to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. The resulting settlement required states in the bay watershed to establish and implement pollution prevention plans to achieve what is known as the "bay pollution diet." To support this effort, the PRC has worked to raise awareness of pressing issues related to restoring the Bay and the Patuxent River.
Fowler's tireless efforts on behalf of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay watershed earned him the governor's commendation. Fowler turned 90 this year, but age hasn't deterred him from hosting wade-in events, which most recently occurred at the Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum in June.
"You spend 42 years of your life doing something you love, it's in your blood," Fowler told MDP two years ago. "We've stopped it [the Patuxent River] from dying. I've got grandchildren and great-grandchildren and I want them to enjoy it, too."
Source: Maryland Department of Planning