Christian Bowers was ready to move to Missoula to finish college in 1997 when a bolt of lightning struck him down during a motorcycle ride north of Yellowstone National Park.
The young student and outdoorsman, who had finished his first two years at Mississippi State University, dreamed of attending the University of Montana to finish his degree in wildlife biology.
While he never arrived in Missoula to start school, his parents, David and Margo Bowers, have spent the past 15 years ensuring his legacy survives. Over the past decade, they’ve given nearly $50,000 to build a scholarship in his name, an effort that has helped 14 students achieve their own educational dreams thus far.
“My son had worked two summers in Gardiner and absolutely loved Montana,” said David Bowers. “He was within a few days of moving to Missoula from Gardiner to finish the last two years at UM. When he was killed, that was the natural place to focus our attention, and wildlife biology was the natural area.”
The Bowers family is among a growing list of donors building scholarships within the College of Forestry and Conservation in memory of loved ones. At this year’s forestry school banquet, which the Bowerses attended, the college distributed $160,000 to more than 80 students, including a dozen recruiting scholarships awarded to new freshmen.
Leana Schelvan, communications director for the College of Forestry and Conservation, and Kate Jennings, director of development and alumni relations within the college, said the scholarships range in value and criteria. Most recipients have a compelling financial need.
“The last couple years I’ve seen an uptick in people initiating scholarships,” Jennings said. “The memorial scholarships are probably one of the biggest areas we’re contacted about. Knowing your loved one’s legacy will live in perpetuity is pretty special.”
Toby DeWolf, a Helena restaurateur, established the Stacie Ann DeWolf Memorial Scholarship in honor of his sister, who was killed in 2007 on her 50th birthday by a drunken driver in Missoula.
Stacie DeWolf was two years away from retiring from a 31-year career with the U.S. Forest Service when the accident occurred. Back in 1975, she became one of the first women nationally to earn her certification as a wildland firefighter.
“She really opened the door for women in forestry,” DeWolf said. “She was very instrumental in working with conservation and renewable resources and different things at a time when forestry wasn’t necessarily open to women.”
After his sister’s death, DeWolf’s family settled out of court. They applied a portion of the money to establish the memorial scholarship, saying it was the right thing to do and something Stacie DeWolf would have approved.
“She loved to help people, so this was right up her alley,” DeWolf said. “To be able to give and help others in her name is a beautiful process.”
When the Bowerses lost their son in September 1997, they knew by February they needed to act in his memory. David Bowers searched the Internet looking for contacts at UM. He found Dan Pletscher, director of the university’s wildlife biology program, and took a shot in the dark by writing him a letter.
Bowers didn’t know Pletscher personally, and he didn’t expect he’d get a letter in reply. He was right about that. Instead, three days later, Bowers received a personal phone call from Pletscher.
“He said he’d do anything he could to help,” Bowers said. “It started a relationship that’s going on 15 years now. We started small, but we’ve contributed to the principal of the scholarship fund and have managed to grow it.”
As many other families do, the Bowerses arrived for the School of Forestry’s scholarship banquet in Missoula last week. They met Allison Bernhisel, a student from Salt Lake City who won this year’s Christian Bowers Memorial Scholarship.
“That pretty much pays for a whole semester for me, and that helps me not have to take out so many loans,” said Bernhisel, a sophomore with plans for graduate school.
“They told me how proud they were of me,” she added. “You appreciate it when you get the money, but when you meet them and they tell you that, it makes your hard work and dedication that much more rewarding.”
The Bowerses will never see their son graduate from college. But they’ve found joy in helping others reach their goal. That, they said, helps them out most of all.
“If you sit there and watch those youngsters get up, you see their professors beaming,” said Bowers. “The kids themselves, they’re the most important part of it. If you ask me, our future is in pretty good hands.”