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Ex-Deputy's Star Still Shines in Department

VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | PROFILE / HOWARD BOWMAN

July 03, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was a time when Ventura County lawmen wore 10-gallon hats. When deputies wearing jeans, flannel shirts and .38-caliber revolvers at their sides took turns using the county's two patrol cars to roam flourishing ranchland.

When the biggest scandal to hit these parts was Lucy Hicks, a popular cook and brothel keeper who turned out to be a man.

Howard Bowman was there to see it all.

Bowman, who celebrated his 96th birthday last month, is the oldest retired deputy in the county.

Proudly displayed in a glass showcase in the den of his Ventura home is a still-shiny gold star--Bowman's first badge, issued in 1937. It bears the number 19.

"Yeah," said Bowman, staring at the six-pointed symbol of so much past. "I was the 19th deputy in this county--things have changed a bit since then."

Then, Ventura County was a big oil town. Ventura Avenue, now in a battle against crime and blight, was home to wealthy residents who made money on the slippery black substance percolating underground.

But most county residents made their living off the thriving citrus ranches dominating the county landscape. The biggest ranchers were revered like kings.

Reports of avocado and citrus thefts filled a young deputy's logbooks. Murders, rapes, gang shootings, drug sales--still decades away.

"I couldn't be a police officer today," said Bowman, who still appears remarkably young and carefree despite the wrinkles carving deep creases around his eyes.

"They have so many problems," he continued. "It's altogether different. Their job is harder, and people respect them less."

Bowman started his life on a 200-acre farm in Kansas, helping his dad grow wheat and corn in between picking off jack rabbits with a 16-gauge Harrington and Richardson shotgun. He still owns the weapon, which is next to his badge in the glass case.

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By the age of 5, he could ride a bull and tame a horse. But when wheat crops jumped to the unbelievable price of $2 a bushel, Bowman's father made a nice profit and decided to leave the farm for California.

On July 4, 1920, the Bowmans settled in the San Joaquin Valley.

After graduating from high school in 1923, young Bowman worked as a meat cutter and grocery delivery boy in San Francisco.

By 1930, the oil business in Ventura County was doing so well, Bowman and his brother moved to Ventura to make their fortune by running a seven-pump gas station, enormous for the time, on Ventura Avenue.

"The oil fields were booming and a lot of men were working out there," Bowman said. "And they all had cars."

But Bowman became restless after five years in the gasoline business and looked for a job with a little more excitement--one where he could use his love of travel, knack for hunting and handiness with a gun. He became a junior game warden for the California Department of Fish and Game, earning $100 a month.

A year later, the chance of a hefty pay raise--an extra $10 a month--motivated Bowman to apply for a deputy sheriff's position.

There was no academy then. No tests to take or rigorous screening interviews. His background with Fish and Game was impressive, so they gave him a gun and a badge.

Training came from hanging out with one of about a dozen more experienced lawmen.

"They put me right into a patrol car with Joe Parr," said Bowman, recalling his first partner. "And I just kind of learned from him."

Of the two county patrol cars, only one rolled through the county at any given time--one during the day, the other at night.

Behind the wheel of a shiny black Plymouth, with a red light on the dash and a siren attached to the front bumper, Bowman and his partner visited area ranchers.

He knew them all by first name: Jack. Walter. Cal.

Sometimes they invited him in for a cup of steaming black coffee and they'd talk until the pot was empty. Many calls were just social, a way to get to know the people he served.

But there were business calls, too.

Someone was always making off with a few loads of avocados, a few head of cattle, maybe some prized farming tools.

Inevitably, while sitting on the front steps of an Ojai rancher's home, a call would crackle over his walkie-talkie radio--a theft or domestic violence was going down on the east side of the county.

Making his apologies, Bowman and his partner would climb into the reliable Plymouth and make the drive, Bowman said.

Without freeways connecting Ojai to Thousand Oaks or the tiny town of Simi Valley (then just a main street dotted with a few stores and nearby homes), it could be a good hour's drive.

Countless trips were made over the Conejo Grade, a two-lane road in those days. Traversing the county so often meant a single deputy could drive about 100,000 miles a year.

In those early days, Bowman began recording daily calls in a small red journal, a tradition he continued every day he was a deputy.

About 30 journals, one for each year he was a deputy, now fill a bookcase in his home.

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