GENEVA – The ability to bounce back from adversity without losing their resolve often separates the Kane County Cougars’ successful players from those that don’t last long in professional baseball.
Bill Bowers, the Cougars’ 90-year-old usher, is decades beyond his athletic prime, but he sets that unflappable tone as well as anybody in the organization.
Orphaned as a child, Bowers has encountered plenty of heartache and duress, yet remains the ultimate optimist. His sunny worldview is on display for all those who pass through Gate 3 at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark.
“I’ve never had an enemy in my life,” Bowers said. “That’s who I am. I love people. I figure if you’re a bad person, I’ll make you good. You’ll smile when I get done with you.”
Bowers said his son, Dale, directed him to a Cougars usher position in 1994 as a way to help move on after Bowers’ wife, Arleen, died. In the 20 years to follow, he’s become one of the faces that Cougars fans, employees and even team members most associate with the franchise.
Bowers’ only extended absence from the ballpark came last year. He missed the entire 2013 season after a serious health scare late in 2012, when the aftereffects of a bout with pneumonia temporarily forced him into an assisted living center.
But despite his advanced age and the perils of a baseball season – the heat, the cold, the rain and everything in between – Bowers was determined to reclaim his post and resume what he does best – connect with people.
Bowers calls the ballpark environment “the greatest in the world.”
“The name of the game is love, and that kind of love is from the heart,” Bowers said. “You’re talking to someone, making them feel comfortable coming into the park.”
Bowers, a Bartlett resident, was born in Pennsylvania but has lived in too many cities to count, he said. Now the only surviving sibling among 10, Bowers was split from several of his brothers and sisters after his parents died, saying “it’s a lonely world” for an orphan.
“I grew up overnight even though I was a young man,” Bowers said.
Bowers said he was able to afford two years of college at Fordham University and was drafted into the army during World War II. He spent much of his adult life working in the hotel industry, then switched paths to accept a position with the RR Donnelley printing company in Chicago.
His initial duties with the Cougars included handing out lollipops to children, and he’s maintained his enthusiasm for dishing out goodies and cheery salutations.
“People are anxious to get anything, you know what I mean,” said Bowers, who was the team’s head usher for much of his tenure. “A pencil, a ball, a bobblehead or anything like that. The most important thing is always smile with the customer, if you’re giving them a pencil or you’re giving them a bobblehead. One thing is 2 cents, the other one is 2 dollars.
“The other thing is, I love kids. Dealing with kids, you smile with them, and the mothers like that because they appreciate the fact that their child has been noticed.”
Bowers is an avid baseball fan, and he doesn’t hesitate to advise players to make sure their practice habits are as enticing to scouts as their talent. He called former Cougars great and eventual major league pitcher Dontrelle Willis “the most interesting person I’ve ever met … what a gentleman.”
Cougars general manager Curtis Haug said Bowers is a valuable consultant about many facets of the team’s game-day operation since he hears so much first-hand feedback from fans. Haug called Bowers “an inspiration” and “a great Cougars ambassador.”
“I’ve been lucky to have him a part of my life for the past 20 years,” Haug said. “He’s a special man.”
St. Charles resident John Bukovits, another longtime Cougars usher, also has worked with Bowers since the mid-1990s; the two are now partners working Gate 3.
Bukovits said many fans asked about Bowers’ whereabouts when he was recovering from his illness last year. Bukovits acknowledged his own concern but was confident his partner would return.
“I knew he’d be back,” Bukovits said. “Bill’s the kind of guy who can’t sit still, so I knew he’d be back.”
Bowers not only works five-plus hour days at the ballpark for home games, but he remains deeply involved with his church – Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Carol Stream – and he exercises regularly.
His passion for a healthy lifestyle sometimes prompts him to good-naturedly chide fans about their smoking. But even his ribbing is accompanied with a smile, which helps explain the response from co-workers and fans when he returned this season.
“I felt like they were all my brothers and sisters, for crying out loud,” Bowers said. “They all come up to me, give me a great, big hug and a hello and all that. The reason I’m back, camaraderie is the best thing and friendship is the best thing. When you have friends, you have everything. When you’re alone and don’t do anything, you’re in bad shape.”