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Newton Bowles stands in front of signage at UNICEF House in March, 2004. (UNICEF)
Newton Bowles stands in front of signage at UNICEF House in March, 2004. (UNICEF)

Obituary

Legendary UN adviser Newton Bowles held record for service Add to ...

Newton Bowles was born in China and died in the United States but was thoroughly Canadian. Ottawa thought so, too, evidenced by his 2001 appointment to the Order of Canada, which noted that Bowles was approached by the newly created United Nations in 1945 to head its post-war relief efforts in China – with typically Canadian results. “He ensured the equitable distribution of humanitarian aid and earned a reputation for fairness,” noted the honour. “This was the beginning of an association with the UN, which would extend over five decades.”

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Even longer. Bowles worked for the UN since its inception and held the record for the longest service with UNICEF – the United Nations Children’s Fund – lasting from the summer of 1948 until December, 2010, when he held aloft his final payment of a dollar a year as an adviser to the agency.

A legendary figure at the world body who had a front-row seat to every major global issue since the Second World War, Bowles brought relief to millions of children and women facing war, violence, disease and poor nutrition.

“He was a consummate diplomat,” said his niece, Lisa Presley. “He kept his eye on the needs of women and children, realizing that a nation’s standing was dependent upon those elements.”

Bowles traversed the globe three times, delivering humanitarian and development aid to all but a handful of nations, and spoke Mandarin, French, Spanish and German.

He viewed the United Nations as highly flawed, even broken, but indispensable in an increasingly volatile world. The 9/11 attacks “told us that the UN is essential,” he told CBC Radio in 2002. “We just can’t get along by ourselves.”

He elaborated: “We’re coming to realize that a world order based on fear and distress is inherently insecure [and] unstable, and that we must move to a recognition of the fact that we all are brothers and sisters.”

Bowles died on Oct. 2 in Duluth, Minn., where he had moved to be closer to family. He was 95.

He was a cousin of former prime minister Lester Pearson (whose mother was a Bowles and the sister of Newton’s grandfather). He was a runner who completed several half-marathons, a published poet and an accomplished artist who had his watercolour and oil landscapes and skyscapes exhibited in Toronto and New York. One of his big oils is awaiting display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

He painted mostly at night, when he had the time, and during summers on Grand Manan Island, off the New Brunswick coast. “My painting has been a very important part of my life,” he explained. “It’s a balance for this involvement in international affairs.”

Newton Rowell Bowles (Rowell to friends and family; Newton at the UN) was born in 1916 in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China, to Newton Ernest Bowles, a Methodist missionary, and Muriel Olive Woods, a nurse. His Canadian parents had met in China, but had to return to Toronto “to have a proper Rosedale wedding,” Bowles would recall.

It was a politically fragmented era in China, with regional warlords ruling their fiefdoms. Bowles would recall a violent, disturbing time.

“From my childhood, I saw the most terrible evidence of brutality. On my way to school, for example. I went on horseback [and] I could see decapitated bodies and soldiers all over the place.” He was 10 years old when the family returned to Toronto. “I remember being astonished. I said, ‘Where are the soldiers?’ There was no evidence of military on the streets.”

His uncle had been chancellor of Victoria College at the University of Toronto so “it was in the blood.” He graduated with triple honours in philosophy, English and history, and a summer internship at a church parish outside North Bay, Ont. “was enough” to discourage him from becoming a minister. Instead, he won a fellowship to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he was well into doctoral studies when the Second World War intervened.

Rejected for service because of a bad eye, he made his way to the British recruiting office in Washington to inquire about preparations for post-war civilian relief, and was recruited by UNICEF’s predecessor, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in 1945. He regarded the posting back to his native China as a “temporary diversion” from an academic career.

Bowles encountered a massive operation. “UNRRA dumped 2,000 international staff into Shanghai in the course of a few months and, although I was a young fellow, I was one of the few people there who had any sort of preparation for this,” he recounted for Canadians in the World, a publication of the Foreign Affairs department.

“So I was jumped up to management level in this whole show and I was made responsible for getting humanitarian relief across the battle lines. That was my political education! I found that war is war. I had grown up rather naively as a good Christian boy, saying all men are brothers.

“While negotiating with the Nationalist generals, we had a very interesting arrangement with the Communists. During [China’s] civil war, we had a delegation of five from the Communists right with us in Shanghai and when the war was very hot, I got them into the UNRRA hotel with a 24-hour guard on them. We managed to do some symbolic work. The amounts we actually got across the lines were, of course, rather minimal but we established the fact that we were not political.”

Romantic and heroic perhaps, but “it was astonishing that none of us was killed.”

The UN operation in China wrapped up in early 1948 and Bowles returned to New York, where he was briefly enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary and studied with the leading Christian scholars of the day, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. But he was back in China later that year for the new agency, UNICEF.

His responsibility was for all Asia, but that broadened to work throughout the globe, and from 1965 to 1978, Bowles was worldwide program director for UNICEF. “It was a really wonderful job,” he recounted. “UNICEF being fairly small, I was involved in everything, in organization, administration, in supply operation, recruitment and in the evolution of our basic policies.”

The agency drew a lot of political flak from the left and the right, but he soldiered on. “I was the workhorse who ran the programs,” he said, and he often succeeded at transcending politics. In El Salvador, for example, “we were able to initiate immunization work while they were at each others’ throats. They actually stopped fighting to make it possible for us to help children.”

He never officially retired and was over 80 when he became a proud “dollar-a-year man,” advising UNICEF’s emergency operations. For years, he was the New York-based UN representative for both the United Nations Association in Canada, which seeks to engage Canadians in the work of the UN; and for the Group of 78, an informal group of Canadians who promote disarmament, sustainable development and a strong UN.

“He was a service-oriented, global citizen who made significant and thoughtful contributions,” said Kate White, president and CEO of the UN Association in Canada. “He was well into his 90s when he was still doing a very thoughtful annual analysis of the UN and the world. He understood human foibles and also that the UN was as weak as hubris could make any institution. But he was its greatest champion.”

That sentiment came through in Bowles’ 2004 book, The Diplomacy of Hope: The United Nations Since the Cold War , which confronted the despair facing the world but painted a largely sympathetic history of the UN since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As UNICEF noted in its obituary, Bowles was asked in his later years what he saw as the UN’s greatest challenges and assets. He replied that humanity had the capacity to destroy itself or improve life in fundamental ways.

“I see the UN as operating between these two poles – it is between life and death,” he said. “UNICEF, of course, stands for life.”

Bowles was predeceased by his sisters, Muriel, Betty and Trudy, and his wife, Jean (Pres) Bowles. He leaves several nieces, nephews and cousins.

A celebration of his life will be held at All Souls Unitarian Church, 1157 Lexington Ave., N.Y. on Nov. 16 at 10:00 a.m.

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