(CNN) – Herbert “Bertie” Bowman, the longest-serving African-American congressional staffer in history who worked on Capitol Hill for more than 60 years, died Wednesday, according to a spokesperson for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He was 92.
According to his autobiography “Step by Step,” at 13, Bowman imagined Washington, DC could offer him a different path than his South Carolina family farm. He “fantasized” about a life “up the road,” where he could be lost in a bustling city. After a chance meeting with the late Democratic Sen. Burnet Maybank of South Carolina, his “fantasy became an obsession,” he wrote.
Bowman forged friendships with presidents, worked his way from janitorial staff to the Senate floor and made history with the longevity of his unprecedented career, according to his autobiography. From stair-sweeping, Bowman climbed the staff ranks, eventually finding a home in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – one of the most powerful committees within Congress – in the 1960s as a clerk.
Bowman first announced his retirement from the committee in 1990, though he told C-Span he continued to work on and off the payroll. But Bowman didn’t retire for long. When former Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, assumed the chair of the committee, he told Bowman he wanted him to return as his hearing coordinator, Bowman told C-Span in 2008.
Asked by C-Span how he could consider lawmakers who opposed civil rights legislation as friends, Bowman said, “Anytime you have someone that’s going to do things for you or ready to help you when you’re in need and stick by, that’s one reason why I call them my friend.”
Bowman wrote in his memoir that he “never discussed with Senator Helms the terrible things he said about Blacks.”
Bowman’s unwavering dedication and kindness earned him praise in 2019 from former President Bill Clinton, who reminisced to CBS about Bowman, his former supervisor and then the only African American Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member, according to Clinton’s foreword in Bowman’s autobiography.
Bowman oversaw a college-aged Clinton when he worked as a messenger for then- Arkansas Democratic Sen. William Fulbright, Bowman told C-Span. Bowman was “exactly the kind of person you’d want to take you under his wing, if you’re a 20-year-old student just working your first job in Washington,” Clinton said in a 2019 interview with CBS.
“From his humble beginnings as a poor farm boy in the segregated South to his years as a junior member of the Senate janitorial staff to his tenure as hearing coordinator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he epitomizes the kind of citizen that makes this country great,” Clinton wrote in the foreword of Bowman’s biography.
“This is the American dream,” Bowman told C-Span in 2008, sitting in an empty Senate Foreign Relations meeting room, “living the American dream, that I’m right here – Senator Helms always had us say, ‘You know, bud, neither of us made us through college, but here we are.’”
President Joe Biden, a former senator on and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote that Bowman’s autobiography “Step by Step,” was “a great American story by a frontline witness to history.”
In 2019, the United States Senate Federal Credit Union named their headquarters after Bowman, a former chairman of the USSFCU and the board’s longest-serving member. That same year, an 88-year-old Bowman told CBS he had no plans of retiring.
USSFCU CEO and President Timothy Anderson told CNN, Bowman was “like a second father to him.”
“I am the CEO of this organization today, in large part because of Bertie as a mentor,” Anderson said. He attributed Bertie’s success to a motto he often shared: “Work hard, be true to yourself, take responsibility, have a positive outlook and then expect the best from people.”
Anderson said that just before his death, Bowman asked for his funeral procession to pass the headquarters named after him. “He walked the halls with presidents and senators, but Bertie treated everyone the same – and he employed us to do the same,” Anderson said, adding Bowman “didn’t care about title.”
In 2020, Bowman was inducted into the African American Credit Union Hall of Fame by the African-American Credit Union Coalition.
Foreign Relations Chairman Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, described Bowman on Thursday as the “very embodiment of the American Dream and will continue to inspire new generations of public servants to pick up where he left off.”
“He imprinted himself on the work and lives of every member that had the privilege to serve on our Committee across both sides of the aisle, and did so with honor, decency, and kindness,” Cardin said in a statement.
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, “Bertie wasn’t just a fixture of so many Foreign Relations hearings I attended – he was a warm, funny, and friendly presence in the Senate. I’ll miss him.”
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