Laura Fowler, Managing Shareholder of the Fowler Law Firm PC, announced today the formation of the Fowler Family Foundation for Performing Arts & Sciences in honor and memory of the late Robert "Bob" Penn Fowler. The Foundation's initial mission will support musicians, live musical performances, and performance venues challenged by circumstances surrounding COVID-19.
Click on the video to see the entire presentation.
Robert Penn Fowler, or Bob as he was known to friends and family, was born on April 30, 1933 in Austin, Texas. His grandfathers, I.D. Fowler, and Judge Robert Lee Penn for whom he was named, were licensed attorneys who practiced law in Austin until the time of their deaths.
Bob's father, Marion West Fowler was a licensed attorney and Travis County Clerk, while his mother Marion Penn Fowler was a Biology Instructor at the University of Texas, a rarity for women at the time. His father became a candidate for the Texas Senate in 1940 (Bob would later run for Travis County Court Judge in 1966 and serve as a City of Austin Municipal Judge). Campaigning was a family affair traveling to speeches and events, handing out campaign materials, and talking with voters. Audiences were deeply moved by Fowler's The Forgotten Man speech in which he proclaimed, "The Forgotten Man...between 45 to 65 years of age; not eligible for a job because he is too old; not old enough for a pension, too healthy to die. These men want no charity. They want an opportunity to exchange honest labor for an honest living...".
Bob's love of music was inspired by his mother who was often invited to sing for civic, community, and social organizations. He learned to play the harmonica at the age of six and became a self-taught master of the banjo, bass fiddle, and mandola over time, although he never learned to read music. Bob often recalled stories of his mother's civic engagement. She was the President for the Austin League of Women Voters for many years. She was also an officer in other influential organizations such as the Austin Art League, University of Texas Sports Association, and Austin Yacht Club.
Marion Fowler constructed a 71-foot, 50-ton steel, stern paddle wheeler named The Riverboat Commodore that made its maiden voyage down a six-mile stretch of Lake Austin in 1949. The 200-passenger riverboat - the only one of its kind built in Texas - hosted meals, dancing, and live music. It proved to be a large musical influence on Bob who was an original member of the Geezinslaw Brothers band, comprised of locals Sammy Allred, Penn Johnson, Bill Clapp, Jerry Brown, Jody Meridith, and Bob Fowler himself. He played the harmonica and created original works with the group, including comedy and parody that were enjoyed by voyagers on the riverboat. The Riverboat Commodore still operates along Lake Austin to this day.
The Geezinslaw Brothers soon became a fixture at community events in Austin. However, Bob's career with the group was cut short in 1951 when he was accepted to the University of Texas. Band leader Sammy Allred asked Bob to leave the group as he insisted, he did not want "overeducated" members in his band. The Geezinslaw Brothers went on to have a fruitful career consisting of several studio album releases and performances on variety shows including those of Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan, and Jackie Gleason.
Bob's love of performing continued while a member of the Tau Deuteron Chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, the same fraternity his brother Dudley had pledged. Bob sang and continued to write parody. He went on to serve as Board President and provided pro bono legal service for his Fiji Brothers for almost five decades. While not singing and writing parody with his Fraternity brothers, Bob studied and was accepted to the Texas Law School dual enrollment program in his third year as an undergraduate and completed his studies in just six years. He traveled as part of the Navy ROTC each summer. In 1961, Bob joined the Austin Chord Rangers, a thirty-two-voice barbershop chorus as a baritone.
Bob also worked tirelessly to preserve many historic houses in Austin, including the historic Walter Tips House which he defended and helped save with the Austin Heritage Society when he discovered a buyer of the property intended to demolish the house.
Bob would court and then propose to fellow naval officer Laura Sanders in 1992. In lieu of an elaborate and expensive wedding, the two declared themselves married at Shoal Creek Saloon and celebrated with catfish and gumbo. Their only child, daughter Julia Marion Fowler, was born about two years later. Bob's last trip outside of Austin was in May of 2016 to see Julia graduate with a double major in Physics and Philosophy from Tufts University. Julia is currently a physicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute.
In this brief overview of Robert "Bob" Penn Fowler's story it is clear that the Fowler Family Foundation for Performing Arts & Sciences is a fitting tribute to his legacy. He truly had a lifelong love affair with the music, history and arts community of Austin.
The Fowler Family Foundation commissioned the video about the life of Robert Penn Fowler, which appears at the top of this page. It was produced with videography and audio editing by Vive™ Productions. Archive materials and consultation was provided by Mike Miller, Senior Archivist at Austin History Center; Michael Barnes, Columnist at the Austin American-Statesman; and Charlie Lockwood and Gabriela Kane from Texas Folklife. The soundtrack for the video is Texas Fiddle Favorites performed by Major Franklin, Lewis Franklin, and Norma Solomon (1966).
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