Willie Bowman will be remembered as the beloved peanut and program vendor at historic Golden Park and the Columbus Civic Center.
It was Bowman's booming voice that Columbus Cottonmouths head coach and general manager Jerome Bechard will never forget.
"I'll remember that big, bellowing voice doing what Willie did best," Bechard said. "The voice that came from deep in the heart sticks with you."
Bowman, who passed away in July at the age of 77, will be inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center, along with Lewis Colbert, Joe Lee Dunn, Charles Ragsdale and Eugene White.
Bowman was the Goody Goody Peanut man at Golden Park until 2008, when the city lost its minor league team. Bowman's love for baseball had its roots in the 1930s when he tagged along with his grandfather who worked at the segregated ballpark. He began selling programs when the ownership group led by local businessman Dayton Preston bought the Astros Class AA team in 1978.
Bowman's voice moved across the parking lot to the Columbus Civic Center in the fall of 1996 when the Cottonmouths were born. He sold programs out front and in the arena. While the Snakes pursued the Southern Professional Hockey League championship, Bowman's health was failing. The hearty voice was reduced to a whisper and he was unable to finish out the 2011-2012 season.
"Our hard core fans each had a little personal connection to Willie," Bechard said. "They each had a little game-day ritual with him, whether it was to just say hello or shake his hand, they all had to go by and see Willie."
The only thing that exceeded baseball, hockey and their fans for Bowman was his family. Pauline and Willie Bowman were married for 56 years and had one child, Cynthia Richardson.
Richardson now lives in Meridian, Miss., and will be unable to attend the induction ceremonies. Only the birth of Bowman's great-grandchild prevents her from coming.
"My daughter Bianca's child will be due right at that time," Richardson said.
Though her mother will remain in Mississippi with the mother-to-be, her sister LaToya Richardson will represent the family at the ceremony. It will be a bittersweet moment for Bowman's still-grieving only child.
"I didn't get to Golden Park that often, but I always knew he was down at the park," Richardson said. "It was a big part of his life. He never met a stranger and really loved the kids. My dad loved people and sports. He loved being busy and especially loved being there at the ballpark."
More than a salesman
One of Bowman's colleagues for 30 years at Golden Park was Dave Rutledge. Their friendship began long before their baseball days.
"Willie was my fishing partner for about 40 years," Rutledge recalled. "He got me hired at the ballpark. I was the beer man, but Willie and I did everything. Willie, (the late) Jim Koger and I were a three-man wrecking crew."
Bowman's salesmanship was legendary. "There was something about Willie," Rutledge said. "He loved kids and he could sell anything. He could sell hats, beer, peanuts and programs. It didn't matter."
In addition to selling, Bowman loved to cook. Whether it was frying up catfish or hot dogs or smoking ribs, Bowman was willing to try anything.
Rutledge remembers Bowman getting an unusual request from one of the Astros owners, renowned orthopedic surgeon, Dr. James Andrews.
"The doctor asked Willie if he could do him a favor," Rutledge said. "Willie said he would and Dr. Andrews asked him if he could cook a whole hog. Willie made a big barbecue pit and cooked that hog all night. At 5:30 the next morning, the doctor told Willie that he couldn't believe it tasted so good."
Rutledge and Bowman remained friends after their days at the ballpark ended. Rutledge visited Bowman shortly before his death.
"I went to see Willie in the hospital," Rutledge said. "His voice had just about left him. He got out of the hospital and went home. He was somewhat better when I went to the house to see him. We sat down together for an hour on the front porch."
As concession manager at Golden Park, John Evans worked with Bowman for more than 10 years. Their friendship began long before their working relationship.
"I met Willie in high school," Evans said. "He was selling peanuts at the football games at Memorial Stadium in the late '50s."
Evans also remembered Bowman's relationship with the fans.
"He made all of the fans happy," Evans said. "He wouldn't throw the peanuts to them. He would always hand them to the fans. I remember he went up to Lake County in 2003 to help them get started. He stayed up there a week. He also worked as the clubhouse attendant that last season of baseball."
Evans saw Bowman occasionally at hockey games over the past few years. He, too, will always remember Bowman's voice booming his trademark "Get your goodygoodygoodygoody peanuts!" call.
"That voice could be heard for miles."