LIMA — Thirty-four years have passed since the death of Lima's Bill Dowd.
Thirty-four years of not knowing exactly how his life tragically ended.
Thirty-four years of wondering why such a terrible thing happened to such a good person.
In 1968, the Lima Central Catholic graduate left town after slipping off his gown and mortarboard. In hand was a scholarship to play football, wrestle and study at the Big Ten's academically prestigious Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
For most of his classmates, many of whom gathered this past summer and no doubt spoke of him at their 45th high school reunion, graduation was the last time they would ever see him.
On July 14, 1979 — more than a decade after he left Allen County — Bill Dowd's body was found in the rain forests of the island of St. Croix. Police surmised that it was sometime on the Friday before — a Friday the 13th of all things — that Dowd was murdered.
According to autopsy findings, the end was gruesome: a gunshot to the back of the head, an exit wound above the right eye, a deep knife wound in his chest, and a variety of bruises and contusions from a bludgeoning. His body was found stuffed in a crate outside his primitive abode on a project farm off Mahogany Road on the very island he once saw as his own personal paradise.
His life's path ended before his 30th birthday arrived.
A family you don't forget
It was a job offer from Superior Coach that saw Bill's father, Dick, bring his wife and five children to Lima in 1963. Superior Coach wanted Dick to install a computer system, a technology almost unheard of in the early '60s. The lure of being on the cutting edge of such a technological innovation was too great to resist.
The Dowds had lived on a farm in Burton, just east of Cleveland in Geauga County. Dick was a certified public accountant who worked the farm as a hobby. His wife, like so many women of her era, was a homemaker who kept the house and the children — Dick Jr., Pat, Jim, Judy and the youngest, Bill — in order.
The family made an impression right away in Lima.
The oldest of the Dowd children, Dick Jr., showed the potential this family had when he became a nuclear physicist and worked in the Environmental Protection Agency under President Jimmy Carter.
As for Bill, he fit in quickly at St. Charles Catholic School, where he was enrolled as an eighth-grader.
Three tons of fun
By his sophomore year, it became clear that the youngest of the clan was blessed with something more than the strong intellect that others in his family possessed. He would be the athlete, and quickly began making his mark in both football and wrestling. Bill was known by both teammates and opponents alike for his unmatched tenacity and competitive drive. At 260 pounds, along with his T-Bird teammates Ray Lynch and Mike Bloomfield, who also weighed in the 250- to 300-pound range, they became the anchor of one of Lima's most dominating defensive units, a unit coached during Bill's sophomore year by Jerry Glanville, who at the time stood on a lower rung of a ladder that eventually would see him climb to head coaching positions in the National Football League.
And while Lynch, Bloomfield and Bill Dowd all carried their own individual nicknames, with Dowd's being the ubiquitous moniker bestowed upon many big guys, Moose, the three also were accorded a collective nickname: The Three Tons of Fun, an appellation especially favored by local sportswriters.
Bloomfield recalled the first time he recognized the commitment Dowd brought to football, even though that commitment came in such an unorthodox fashion.
“We were in the shorts and T-shirts faze of our summer practices, and we all had to run the mile by completing several laps around the school in a certain time. Well, most of us were out there stretching, and I looked up and saw Bill jogging towards us with something around his neck.
“As he got closer, I could see what it was: A rope with some free weights he'd knotted on the rope, and with those weights clanging together and that extra weight, that's how he ran that mile. And, he made his time too! He was so committed to getting himself in peak shape that it kind of shamed a lot of the rest of the guys who weren't fully committed.”
Steve Archer played end for LCC's chief sports rival in the 1960's, the Shawnee Indians. He also encountered Dowd on the wrestling mat in the winter, and remembers him well.
“He was the most relentless guy I was ever asked to either block on a football field or wrestle on the mats. He treated both sports like an all-out war, almost a fight to the death.
“I played football for Jerry Glanville for a while at Western Kentucky,” Archer continued. “It was where Glanville went after leaving LCC, and Glanville told me he'd kept count and Dowd had broken something like eight guys' noses when he wrestled.”
That wasn't all Glanville recalled.
“He also told me a funny story that involved Bill and his mom on the first day of full contact football practice. Apparently, she came to practice and was standing off to the side. As the team was warming up, she called Glanville over and asked him if there was school insurance provided for the players. When Glanville told her not to worry, that if anything happened to Bill, he'd be covered, she told him that wasn't her concern. It was the rest of the boys who had to practice against Bill that she was concerned about.”
Those who knew Bill Dowd well from his LCC days remember him as equal parts fierce competitor who loved contact, and as a comedian who loved to make his classmates laugh.
Bob Seggerson, who played with Dowd for just one varsity year, recalls one moment from practice as hazily as he did 47 years ago.
“ I was a senior and, I guess, feeling pretty tough. Bill was a sophomore. On one play, I ran a short pass pattern over the middle, and Bill absolutely pasted me, literally knocked me out. It was absolutely the hardest I was ever hit by anyone in all my years of football … stars, birdies flying around, the whole bit.
“But, off the field, he loved to make us laugh. And, like all the Dowds, he was very sharp intellectually as well. No one ever got into Northwestern just on the basis of athletic ability alone.”
In 1968, following his graduation, the future looked incredibly bright for Dowd. No one at that time ever could have predicted his life would hold an expiration date of just a little over a single decade.
According to Bill's brother, Jim, three shoulder surgeries at Northwestern ended his playing days, and despite being asked to remain on scholarship as a student coach, Bill Dowd's own growing sense of disillusionment over what he perceived as the meat market of big-time college football eventually compelled him to drop out of school.
From there, the dichotomy that was Bill Dowd began to manifest itself. The intense athlete and serious student both coaches and admissions personnel alike saw began to question many of the traditional values others embraced, both politically and religiously.
In many ways, he became his own version of the 1960's Woodstock Generation.
Remaining in Evanston for a while, Dowd entered the food-service industry, first in fast foods, and eventually headed to Middletown, Conn., intent on becoming a chef. He worked in a jobs program in the kitchen at a nursing home during the day and attended cooking classes at night.
And, it was there that the former football and wrestling star quickly gathered a large circle of friends, many of whom were students at Wesleyan University.
One in his circle of friends, Barbara Strauss, recalls her first perceptions of Bill.
“I was a sophomore psych major and volunteered at a crisis center in town called Touch. It was run by a group of young idealists. It was there as I was answering phones that I first saw Bill. He was wearing a Northwestern athletic department jacket and playing chess with one of our guys who worked on staff. He stood out right away because he had that look of an athlete, not at all like most of the long-haired guys who were at Touch and dressed in Army surplus clothing.
“As I got to know him, I realized how very special he was. Bill had what I'll call 'ordinary generosity,' meaning he was so giving when it came to everyday matters. For instance, while most guys that age, if invited to dinner, wouldn't think of bringing a thing, if you invited Bill to share a meal, he'd bring not one but two bottles of wine, a red and a white, and say something like, 'I wasn't sure which you'd like.'
“Or, if we'd be hanging out and stop for coffee at Dunkin Donuts, he'd pick up a dozen donuts on the way out, hand them to one of us and say, 'I remember what it was like to be a broke college student.' He was truly one of the kindest and most loving people I've ever known.”
A door always open
By this point in the early 1970's, Dowd had become an ardent protester of the Vietnam War as many others of his generation had. He told Strauss of the dispute he'd had with his Northwestern coaches for his wearing a black arm band and taking part in the massive anti-war protest demonstration on Moratorium Day, Oct. 15, 1969.
Dowd also told Strauss he'd begun to move away from traditional Catholicism, experiencing somewhat of a spiritual awakening after a visit to the Bahia Temple. He'd become a firm believer in the one basic tenant of the Bahia faith: “All humanity is one family.”
Recalls Strauss, “Bill practiced the philosophy's core belief. He was so giving. He'd let anyone who felt he or she was in crisis mode crash at his apartment without ever asking anything in return. Really, anyone who was in trouble had a friend in Bill. Pretty much everyone in town knew him and liked him because they recognized his goodness and his lack of ulterior motives in what he did.”
During Bill's time in Middletown, he received an offer he felt he couldn't refuse, to become a head chef at a resort on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Says Strauss, “It was so hard saying good-bye to him. I knew I would miss his friendship dearly and the myriad of ways he demonstrated generosity. He used to cook for me and the other staffers at Touch all the time … fancy omelets, pumpkin soup baked Alaska … the type of dishes he knew we wouldn't ordinarily get.”
Life is good
Upon arriving at St. Croix, Bill Dowd almost immediately fell in love with the natural beauty of the island and especially the lifestyle of the islanders, the leisurely pace and the people's willingness to live free from the constraints of a lot of rules and regulations. On St. Croix, time was virtually meaningless.
But, of course, all was not Nirvana, especially when it came to what Bill felt would be his dream job. Recalls Bill's brother, Jim, “The living quarters Bill was given were substandard. The roof leaked and constantly got Bill's stuff wet, and the resort owners refused to fix the roof. Bill also wasn't being paid regularly or fairly, so he went on strike and then eventually resigned.”
Dowd then found employment as an oil-rig worker for Hess Refinery. His new living quarters were on a project farm, which perfectly fit his love of food and cooking when he wasn't on the rig.
Recalls Judith Levi-Wood, who befriended Bill and lived on the farm with her husband and baby, “Bill loved living on an island that grew so much of its own food. We received some governmental funding for experimental farming and had avocados and coconuts and, without a doubt, the absolute sweetest mangoes on the island. On Bill's days off, he worked the farm for free.
“I grew to see Bill as a modern-day Good Samaritan, someone who was put on this earth to give comfort. Whether it was a stray dog or a person in need, he was there to provide aid. I used to tell anyone who asked what Bill was like that he dedicated his life to picking up strays, and it didn't matter whether that stray was a cat, a dog or a human.”
Who am I?
As the St. Croix years passed, Dowd adopted a Rastafarian lifestyle, one, according to his brother Jim, that was an extension of a quest to find true meaning in his life. He even became somewhat of a fringe member of a black Jewish group and began studying Hebrew.
Recalls Jim, “I spoke with my brother from time to time, and Bill told me he really felt he'd found his place on St. Croix. He said that's where he wanted to remain and even wanted to be buried on the island when his time was over.”
Little did anyone know his time was indeed almost over.
Recalls Levi-Wood, “On July 11, 1979, we were all aware of a tropical storm brewing off the coast of Africa that was headed our way. That was the beginning of Tropical Storm Claudette. Really, we were used to storms and, sort of, adopted the attitude that many do who live in areas where catastrophic weather so often presents itself: to expect the worst and hope for the best.”
By July 13, the rains on St. Croix were torrential.
Levi-Wood recalls, “By that time, we had received some additional government funding and had moved to a larger farm in the rain forest area. We also wanted to open a school of the arts on the farm for the island children, a place where they could express their creativity. Bill was so excited about that. The island kids just loved him.”
While most of the rest of those who worked the farm had moved to the new location, Bill still had his little house on the original farm off Mahogany Road. Dowd's goals, according to Levi-Wood, were so simple. “It just never took all that much to make Bill happy.”
That Friday the 13th, the last day of a life that would last 29 years and 194 days, police concluded Bill Dowd was last seen leaving the new farm and heading home in the rain to feed his dogs.
It was on the morning of July 14 when Levi-Woods was told of Bill's murder, and, to this day, she remembers her reaction.
“The pain was unbearable, really the worst I have ever felt in my life,” she said.
Levi-Woods' husband, Barack, found Bill's body after seeing Dowd's jeep abandoned by the side of the road by the rain forest. Bill Dowd often parked there and took a shortcut through the dense foliage and across a stream to get to his small house. When Barack arrived at the house, he found Dowd's body in the crate.
God cried, too
As the news spread throughout the island, the reaction was almost universal. Who would want to kill someone so admired, so generous?
Rumors abounded. Those who didn't trust authority felt it actually may have been the police doing the dirty work of some fringe faction. Others felt it may have been some runaway Rastafarian teens that lived primitively in the rain forest and sought retribution for some alleged offense. Police theorized that Dowd may have interrupted a home burglary. The one thing Bill did have of material value was his tools that he used while working on the rig. Yet others thought the murder may have been the work of a black supremacy group called the House of Israel.
To this day, the case remains unsolved, as cold as the Siberian winters that are the meteorological antitheses of the tropical breezes of St. Croix.
Recalling the funeral, Levi-Woods still mourns.
“God cried with all of us that day. Every time I think of Bill. I think, somehow, his spirit has remained all of these years in the rain forests on St. Croix. He loved those forests, his dogs, his primitive house, his island lifestyle and life itself. I like to think Bill is the spirit among the trees. He was always there to tease gently, to lend a hand, to soothe a broken heart and to provide shelter from the storm.”
Big man, bigger life
By way of what Dowd left behind after his internment on the island's King's Hill Cemetery, Jim Dowd felt there would be little, that is, until he found yet one final act of generosity of his youngest brother. The child of the 60's and free spirit of the 70's had actually taken out a $100,000 insurance policy through Hess.
Recalls Jim, “The beneficiary was Mom, and that money wound up paying for her nursing home in her final years. Bill always told Mom that he'd take care of her, and you know something? He did.”
Thus ends the tale of a former 260-pound football player, one who hit like a sledgehammer, competed as intensely as anyone you'll ever see, and soon after taking off his helmet for the last time, found a different side of himself.
He searched for his place in the world and for life's meaning, and just when he thought he'd found both, he found only a violent end.
And, to brother Jim goes the final word.
“Just thinking about him makes him real again.”