INDIANAPOLIS — Otis R. Bowen, a small-town family doctor who overhauled Indiana’s tax system as governor before helping promote safe sex practices in the early years of AIDS as the top federal health official under President Ronald Reagan, died Saturday, May 4. He was 95.
In a statement Sunday, Gov. Mike Pence said Bowen died Saturday at the Catherine Kasper Life Center, a nursing home in Donaldson, about 25 miles south of South Bend and near Bowen’s hometown of Bremen. He did not disclose the cause of death.
“Governor Otis R. Bowen’s contributions to the life of this state and nation are incalculable, and I mark his passing with a sense of personal loss. His story is as inspiring as it is uniquely Hoosier,” said Pence, who also expressed his sympathies to Bowen’s children and grandchildren.
UPDATE: The funeral for Bowen will be held Friday in Bremen.
Mishler Funeral Home on Bremen announced Sunday that the funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Bremen.
The calling hours will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday and 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the church.
Bowen, known among Hoosiers for decades as “Doc,” was a doctor in the northern Indiana town of Bremen when he first was elected to office in 1952 as Marshall County coroner, starting a political rise that saw him become a wildly popular Republican governor during 1973-81.
He became secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1985, taking charge of the federal government’s response to the spread of AIDS after the Reagan administration had been criticized by activists for a slow initial response.
Bowen promoted public awareness of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and worked with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop on the mailing to 107 million households of a pamphlet with explicit advice on how to avoid the AIDS virus, including using condoms.
During a 1987 news conference, Bowen gave a bit of advice that entered the national lexicon: “Remember, when a person has sex, they’re not just having it with that partner, they’re having it with everybody that partner had it with for the past 10 years.”
Bowen, the stocky, bespectacled speaker of the Indiana House, won the state’s top office in a landslide in 1972, beating former Democratic Gov. Matthew Welsh.
Bowen made state-backed property tax relief his top campaign pledge as those taxes had more than doubled in the previous decade. Legislation passed the next year doubled the sales tax to 4 percent and dedicating the extra revenue to property tax cuts. The proposal was so hotly contested that it only passed the state Senate when Bowen’s lieutenant governor, Robert D. Orr, cast a tiebreaking vote.
State Democrats responded with bumper stickers that said, “What’s Up Doc? Taxes! Vote Democratic.” But the public largely embraced the tax reforms, boosting Bowen’s popularity.
Under an amendment to the state constitution, he was the first governor since the mid-1800s eligible to seek a second consecutive term and easily won re-election in 1976 over Indiana Secretary of State Larry Conrad.
In 1979, Bowen refused to extradite Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight to Puerto Rico after the coach was convicted in absentia and sentenced to six months in jail for hitting a policeman during the Pan Am Games.
Republican leaders wanted Bowen to challenge Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh in 1980, but he declined as his wife, Beth, was in the midst of cancer treatment. His decision cleared the way for Dan Quayle, then a 33-year-old congressman, to win the GOP nomination and unseat Bayh.
Beth Bowen died on New Year’s Day 1981 after more than 40 years of marriage and just days before her husband’s second gubernatorial term ended.
Bowen was born Feb. 26, 1918, near the northern Indiana town of Rochester. He received bachelor’s and medical degrees from Indiana University and joined the Army Medical Corps after completing his internship in 1943. His World War II service included going ashore with the first waves of Allied troops during the invasion of Okinawa in 1945.
He then returned to Indiana and, in 1946, started a family medical practice in Bremen, a small town about 20 miles south of South Bend, which he continued for 25 years.
Bowen once said his medical career, during which he estimated he delivered 3,000 babies, taught him “how to approach emergencies and problems with a certain amount of calmness and common sense.”
After leaving the governor’s office, Bowen taught at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He was tapped by Reagan to become HHS secretary in 1985, a post he remained in until Reagan left office in January 1989.
Bowen said his greatest accomplishment as health secretary was persuading Reagan to back a catastrophic health insurance bill that passed Congress in 1988 in the first major expansion of Medicare since it was established in 1965. But the bill was repealed by Congress the next year, following complaints from retirees who already had coverage and from higher-income people who had to pay a surtax to finance two-thirds of the program.
Bowen had four children with his first wife, Beth. His son, Robert, tried to extend the Bowen family election success, but lost to another second-generation politician, Evan Bayh, in the 1986 race for Indiana secretary of state. Bayh was later elected governor.
Otis Bowen married Rose Hochstetler, a widow from Bremen, in 1981. They moved back to Bremen in 1989 after his time in Washington, but she died of cancer two years later.
Bowen was married in 1993 to Carol Mikesell, who had been a patient of his some 30 years earlier during which time he delivered her two children.