SDPD 09/04/1945 - 1947
04/30/1916 - 07/09/2005
Some days, Joel Bowdan barely had time to catch his breath before responding to the next fire from old Station 19 in southeastern San Diego.

On one shift, he went out on 18 emergencies, he later recalled. Then there was the time a roof collapsed on his head, knocking off his helmet and burning his ears, and the time he suffered third-degree burns on his knees.

"They had to carry him into his house that day," said Gail Kindred, one of his three daughters, "but he wasn't out for long."

When Mr. Bowdan retired in 1973 after 26 years, 8 months, as a firefighter, he had one memory that burned brightest: helping to integrate the San Diego Fire Department in 1951.

Three years ago, Mr. Bowdan, Alwin Holman, Warren Jones and Charles Robinson were honored during Black History Month at the University of California San Diego for their pioneering efforts.

With the support of then-Chief George E. Courser, they had helped turn the San Diego department into one of the nation's first integrated city departments.

Mr. Bowdan, who held other jobs throughout his firefighting career to support his wife and six children, died Saturday at a nursing and rehabilitation center in Kearny Mesa. He was 89.

The cause was complications from a stroke, Kindred said.

In being honored at UCSD, Mr. Bowdan and his colleagues were credited with enduring what former San Diego Fire Department Chief Robert Osby characterized as "emotional and psychological hell."

Mr. Bowdan spent much of his career at Station 19, a modest fixture at 3601 Ocean View Blvd. where black and Latino firefighters were assigned before the department was integrated.

"It was pretty exciting here. They had a bell that would knock you right out of bed it was so loud," Mr. Bowdan told The San Diego Union in 1986.

The 58-year-old station was closed in 1986 and replaced by a more modern facility just down the street. It became a meeting center for Brothers United, an organization of mostly black firefighters.

The old station was special, Mr. Bowdan said in 1986 as he bid it farewell. "There was a wrong way. There was a right way, and there was the Fire Station 19 way.

"They used to send all the rookies here for training. That's how professional we were."

For all the demands of his job, Mr. Bowdan didn't have the luxury of relaxing at home between shifts. "He always held down another job or two," Kindred said.

Some of the work showcased his artistic skills. He did technical illustrations in aircraft repair and cartoon-like illustrations for firefighting instructional manuals.

Nothing, however, interfered with his Sunday church commitments if he wasn't on duty at the Fire Department.

Mr. Bowdan taught Sunday school, served as a deacon and drove a church bus. He worshipped over the years at Greater Apostolic Faith Temple Church, Garden of Prayer Apostolic Church and Truth Apostolic Community Church, Kindred said.

His faith helped him endure adversity and racial injustices, said nephew Andrew Cross.

"He spoke a lot of perseverance and never giving up," Cross said. "He believed if you did the right thing, everything would come out right in the end. He would tell me, 'Whatever you do, don't forget God.' "

Joel Elbert Bowdan was born April 30, 1916, in Los Angeles. As a young man he applied for a job with the Los Angeles Police Department but "didn't make the cut," Kindred said.

After moving to San Diego, Mr. Bowdan was a relief firefighter. During World War II, he was employed by Consolidated Aircraft, the forerunner of the Convair Division of General Dynamics. The day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he married Gweneth Lowe, whom he met in church.

For many years, he lived within walking distance of Station 19 during his firefighting career. When he retired from the Fire Department, he worked 10 more years -- first with Model Cities, and later with Dial-A-Ride, a transportation service for seniors.

"He loved the camaraderie of the Fire Department," Kindred said. "He took pride in saving people and being a mentor to future chiefs."

Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Gweneth; daughters, Marian Miller of Inglewood, Carol Ardrey of San Diego and Gail Kindred of El Cajon; sons, Joel Bowdan II, Alfred Bowdan Sr. and Kenneth Bowdan, all of San Diego; 23 grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
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