In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lois Bowman’s parents would join Lois, husband Wade and their school-aged daughter, Wanda, at the dinnertime table on many evenings. After the kitchen was tidied, Lois would read aloud to everyone.
Among the family’s favorites were the autobiographical children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. “It was delightful,” Lois recalls. “Three generations together. … I still like to read to others.”
Books. Lois Bowman has been immersed in them for 50 years at Eastern Mennonite University.
In 1963, Lois began working in EMU’s Menno Simons Historical Library, plus doing some language teaching. She’s remained in the library ever since, now directing it. At 77, she is the most senior member of the school’s faculty and staff – in length of service and in age.
Library visitors might guess that Lois belongs to a branch of the Mennonites that is more conservative, less modern, than most of the Mennonites employed at EMU. She is never seen at work in slacks – or without sleeves covering her upper arms and a prayer veil over her pinned-back hair.
Raised in a conservative Mennonite family
Her appearance does offer clues to her background. Lois was raised in a conservative Mennonite family. Lois’s beloved mother wore a cape dress until she died in 1991. Wade, whom Lois married in 1962, liked for Lois to maintain the tradition of wearing the covering, though he himself dispensed with wearing the traditional “plain coat” as a young adult.
Since affiliating with Morning View Mennonite Church (a rural church west of EMU) as a teenager, Lois has kept her membership with that congregation over the decades, though she has not been in its pews for many years. In 2002 Morning View withdrew from Virginia Mennonite Conference – with which EMU has close connections – and helped form a network of conservative churches called Mountain Valley Mennonite Churches.
Yet it would be misleading to draw conclusions based on Lois’s church background and clothing. Lois actually worships at the Oak Lea chapel within Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community. “I started going to Oak Lea when Father was living there – he died in 1987 – and I just kept on.” The services at Oak Lea are led ecumenically by two Mennonite pastors, who regularly invite ministers from other denominations to preach.
It’s a place where instrumental music is welcomed each Sunday – Lois plays the organ there twice a month –– in contrast to Morning View, where Sunday morning worship typically features a cappella singing in four-part harmony.
It’s also a place where Lois is likely the only worshiper on a typical Sunday morning to be wearing a prayer covering. She’s also likely the only worshiper who spends her off hours engaged in vigorous exercising, doing her own lawn and garden work, plus bicycling for miles at a time almost every day.
This year, for the second year in a row, Lois is part of EMU’s nine-person team competing in the National Bike Challenge, for which she’s logged 776 miles since May 1, the first day of the contest (it ends Sept. 30). Until 2011, when she had back surgery, she often hiked and camped in Shenandoah National Park.
Lois has always belied stereotypes – or defied them.
She grew up with her hair in pigtails, wearing home-sewn dresses and jumpers. But she wasn’t living in a conservative Mennonite enclave for much of her childhood. She had this appearance while attending a public school in a Maryland suburb of Washington D.C. until she was 12 – her father was working in that area, first in construction and then in a paint store.
When he moved the family back to Harrisonburg in the late 1940s, they settled in a white-frame house with a large front porch on an acre fronting Chicago Ave., two blocks from what was then Eastern Mennonite College. (The house still stands, though the large garden area in the back is now occupied by the Red Bud apartment complex.)
Lois’s mother initially earned pocket money selling Stanley Home Products and then, back in Harrisonburg, working for a Christian book distributor. From these earnings she paid for Lois’s piano lessons. (Lois’s father drove a milk-delivery truck after they settled near EMC.)
In her late teens, Lois started taking violin lessons with James Harman, owner of Harman School of Music, who taught music at area colleges and did public performances, such as playing violin with the orchestra that accompanied local silent movies in the 1920s.
By the time Lois entered EMC to study modern language education in 1956, she had added the violin to her musical repertoire. In recent years, Lois began playing fiddle in local jams of old-time music.
Off to Harvard on full scholarship!
After graduating from EMC in 1960 with a German major and education minor, Lois worked half time in the historical library and half time in the president’s office, where President John Mumaw encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to Harvard through the Council for the Advancement of Small Colleges in which he was active.
On her application, she said she wanted to study German – it was part of her Mennonite heritage, after all (her mother grew up speaking Pennsylvania Dutch). Lois didn’t expect to garner one of the five scholarships offered that year for women graduates of small colleges across the nation. “I was dating Wade at the time and graduate school was not a top priority.” But when she got the scholarship, “I had to go.” After her first year at Harvard, she and Wade married and he joined her in Cambridge, Mass.
With a master’s degree in hand, Lois returned to EMC in 1963, where she taught German and Latin and worked in the historical library, which was then in the area where the dining hall now sits in Northlawn. Until the mid-1960s, as Lois recalls, EMC female faculty members were required to wear cape dresses, obliging Lois to forgo the skirts and blouses she sported at Harvard.
In the spring of 1964, when she was visibly pregnant, Lois looked into a mirror, didn’t like how her cape dress was fitting, and said “enough.” To this day, she typically wears skirts and blouses, unless she is mowing the lawn or running a weed eater, hiking in rough areas, or doing other activities where leg protection is clearly needed.
“My Bible says that widows and orphans are to be taken care of,” says Lois in her forthright manner. “I’m a widow, so I am helping to take care of myself by dressing with my safety in mind.”
As classes in Latin and German were phased out, Lois came to spend all her time in the library, beginning around 1970, when construction of the new Sadie Hartzler Library was underway.
Lois explains that a significant portion of the historical library’s collection of 40,000 books was selected by Irvin B. Horst, an EMC church history professor who moved to the Netherlands in 1967 to teach Mennonite history at the University of Amsterdam. From the 1940s until his death in 2011, Horst collected Anabaptist-themed books, many from the Netherlands. (The Menno Simons Historical Library is named for a former Catholic priest, a Dutchman, who led the Anabaptist/Mennonite movement in the Netherlands in the 16th century.)
In 1987 Lois earned a second master’s degree – this time in library science from The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. Her focus was rare books, giving her the skills to care for the library’s collection of aging materials. She is able to curate books that are in German, French, Latin and Dutch.
Despite her stellar academic credentials, Lois said she did not second-guess Irvin B. Horst. He held a doctorate and was an expert in Mennonite history. He was a man. She was a woman. “His decisions impacted everything we did,” says Lois. The impact was mostly good, but Lois is now ready to assert herself on one matter. “We have too much Erasmus stuff. Irvine had us subscribe to the complete works of Erasmus in its definitive Latin form.” The first 36 volumes of Erasmus (additional volumes keep being published) occupy more than three shelves in one corner of the library.
“Nobody has ever used even one of these volumes,” Lois says. “The old boy network was so strong, we [women librarians] pretty well did what they told us to do,” though she hastens to add that Horst treated women respectfully. It just didn’t feel appropriate to question his judgment.
In 1990 EMC asked Lois to take over as head librarian of the historical library upon the retirement of her supervisor, Grace Showalter, on June 30. It was a date that Showalter did not reach. She unexpectedly died during her last week and was buried on June 30.
Lois’s close colleague today is Cathy Baugh, who works three-fourths time. Lois also supervises two student assistants.
When Lois herself retires in June 2014, she plans to remain in the house on Mt. Clinton Pike where she has lived since 1964. She’ll have lots to occupy her: enjoying her two grandchildren and many nieces and nephews, playing fiddle, organ and piano, bicycling, ham radio, word games like Scrabble, retreating to her cabin at Singers Glen, and church activities at Oak Lea. Plus she plans to return to the library as an enthusiastic volunteer.