By Rich Acritelli
Just recently, Rocky Point Union Free School District lost the wonderful presence of longtime teacher, coach, advisor and administrator Michael Bowler, who passed away Dec. 1. This legendary coach of 47 years had accumulated 447 wins as the only lacrosse coach Rocky Point had ever known. While Bowler was always a notable figure who taught, coached and mentored the students of the school, his unique background of honor, service, kindness and loyalty was established some 72 years ago.
Bowler was born Feb. 14, 1947, to Paul and Marie Bowler. He was raised in Hicksville with his brother Kevin and his two sisters Meg and Stephanie. During World War II, his dad was a Marine Corps fighter pilot who fought in the Pacific, where he was able to fly near one of the greatest baseball hitters of all time, Boston Red Sox icon Ted Williams. After the war, the senior Bowler was involved in business and his mother was an elementary school teacher. As a kid, Bowler attended Catholic school, where he loved playing football and basketball. Since religion has been a cornerstone of this family, Bowler served as an alter boy at St. Ignatius Elementary School. Later, Bowler attended St. Dominic’s High School in Oyster Bay. He was a four-year honor student, a featured running back on the football team and a major leader on the golf squad. His most crowning achievement was meeting his high school sweetheart and later wife, Helene, at the age of 16. Just recently, they renewed their wedding vows for their 50th wedding anniversary.
In 1965, Bowler graduated from high school and moved on to King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He studied history and education and was later a vice president of the student council and the president of the senior class. Shortly after graduating, he married Helene on Aug. 23, 1969, and was quickly hired as a social studies teacher at St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip where he taught history and theology. It was there Bowler began his lifelong passion of coaching, starting with the junior varsity football team. In this rather busy time, Bowler enlisted in the New York Army National Guard for six years. Since his youth he was always in leadership positions, so it was no surprise that Bowler became a heavy truck operator and a platoon sergeant within a motor company. It was at this time Bowler and his wife welcomed their oldest son Brendan into the family Aug. 19, 1972.
In 1973, Bowler was hired at Rocky Point High School,where he continued teaching social studies and was offered a coaching position in lacrosse, a position that would shape the rest of his life. While Bowler was a well-rounded athlete, lacrosse was a new game for him. For the rest of his life, Bowler was always a student of a sport that saw him evolve into one of the finest high school coaches in New York. Bowler grew into a major faculty member that was in charge of the social studies department and was a senior class adviser who organized major trips to Montreal, Canada, and to Walt Disney World in Florida. He ran school dances, the battle of the classes, the senior picnic, prom and dinner from 1976 to 1995 and 2002 to 2003. For a decade, he also coached the varsity girls cross-country team. Bowler ran with his team and demonstrated a strong flair for pushing his students to do well at long-distance running. Like that of lacrosse, he was a devoted leader that had won several league titles and a coach of the year award from 1978 to 1988.
By 1985, the Bowler family grew to three more boys through the addition of Sean, Kevan and Michael All of them attended school at Infant Jesus in Port Jefferson before moving onto St. Anthony’s in Huntington. On top of his busy teaching and coaching schedule, to earn extra money for his family Bowler delivered beer, moved people’s homes and even transported libraries within the city and Long Island to different locations. At night, Bowler went back to school at C.W. Post to earn his administrative degree. He was quickly promoted as an assistant principal at Rocky Point middle and high schools. Armed with a big smile and a can-do attitude, Bowler was responsible for discipline, hiring teachers, scheduling staff and students and being a constant presence at all school functions. He mentored teachers like Brooke Bonomi to constantly support the students around him within every imaginable task and activity. Often, when one observed Bowler’s desk, it was often messy and full of papers dealing with every possible concern that can occur within a school. Even as he held an administration position, Bowler continued to coach the lacrosse team, where he had a positive impact inside and outside of this school.
After several years of working with younger athletes, establishing intramural programs, and coaching the junior varsity team, by 1978 his squad had its first full varsity season. With an energetic demeanor, Bowler instructed a green group of athletes toward attaining an 11-8 record. This was the start of many outstanding decades that saw the Rocky Point Eagles be one of the finest programs within their league, county and on Long Island. In 1985, after several years of hard work, the Eagles captured their first county title. Bowler reached the pinnacle of success within the sport, as he eventually guided his players to a 2008 New York State Championship. For all of his devotion, Bowler was awarded numerous coaches of the year awards through his league and county and he was honored with being the Man of the Year in sports through Times Beacon Record and the local Rotary Club.
In 2014, Rocky Point lost a hard fought game to Lynbrook, where the team came extremely close to making it to the state tournament. Ever the master communicator, Bowler made a detailed speech about the strengths of this group and the importance of giving their all to a contest and still being proud of themselves, even when some goals are not achieved. John Fernandez was a 1996 graduate of Rocky Point, a member of the West Point lacrosse team and close confidant of Bowler. He was severely wounded during the Second Gulf War in Iraq. This talented player openly recalled Bowler “never screamed or belittled a player, lost his cool or uttered profanity on the field. His success in coaching has come from his ability to encourage and get players to ask the most from themselves, not from others.”
Over the years the incredibly personable man established solid relationships with college coaches all over this nation. His “boys” played on every athletic college level at schools like Albany, Adelphi, Brown, Colgate, Dartmouth, Delaware, Hofstra, Manhattan, Stony Brook, Towson, Trinity, Wagner and Wesleyan. In larger numbers, his players served in the armed forces as they played within every service academy team. It is said Rocky Point has more captains that lead the West Point team than any other high school in America. Rocky Point guidance counselors Matt Poole and Jimmy Jordan always marveled at Bowler’s ability to fully understand the college recruiting and admissions process. For decades, Bowler drove his students on numerous trips in New England and the East Coast. Often the case, he quietly took money out of his own pocket for the sake of his players. Just this past year alone, former Rocky Point standout Peter LaSalla was a freshman and faceoff man on the University of Virginia lacrosse team. This local kid that just played for Bowler was a key member of a team that recently won the 2019 National Championship.
It is with a heavy heart that Rocky Point school district mourns the difficult loss of an individual that always made time for his family, friends, students and players. Even as he retired from his administrative position in 2004, Bowler continued to coach lacrosse until his declining health conditions forced him to retire from this position. Bowler leaves behind the love of his best friend Helene who spent countless hours at the school rooting for his teams, along with his three boys Brendan, Kevan and Michael. There is undoubtedly a special place in heaven for Bowler who is surely united with his second oldest son Sean, who passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease, otherwise known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in 2005. The family loved Sean’s girlfriend Adena Herskovitz, who as she was attending Yale Law School had taken care of him after he was diagnosed with ALS. While the Bowler’s are dominated by all boys, Adena truly represented the lone daughter of this family. As with Sean, Adena was recently at the bedside of Bowler to ensure that he was properly receiving the correct medical attention at Sloan Kettering in Manhattan.
Like that of Brooklyn native and Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who was a devout Catholic, teacher, coach, mentor and loyal member of his church, Bowler truly resembled the traits of this historic figure, of living his life for the love of his family, God and the Rocky Point Eagles. For decades, Bowler was a major member of the Infant Jesus Parish in Port Jefferson where he could be seen assisting with the weekly and Sunday Masses. At times, it is my custom to speak with Father Francis Pizzarelli of Hope House and Infant Jesus. With a big smile, Father Frank always described the devotion of Bowler who always enhanced others within his church and team. The priest recalled how Bowler even coached his family members. Always with a hectic schedule, Bowler and his wife took care of a special needs young man and his home over the last several years. Never did the Bowlers ever seek any type of attention for always putting others first — it was not their way. From his youngest moments, Bowler and his family “selflessly” aided others with a tremendous smile, kindness and heart.
Up until his death, Bowler dearly loved his family, team, community and church. He leaves behind a “tribe” of six grandsons, who he was immensely proud of seeing during his visits to Massachusetts and Colorado. Like that of his players, he followed their every lacrosse movements and was happy that they were all well-rounded student-athletes. In the summers, the family vacationed on Block Island where they looked forward to being together. While lacrosse was always a passion for Bowler, the athletic tradition has been passed onto all of his sons, who were all tough college players that later became high school coaches. His two older grandsons are devoted students who are currently playing for Duke University and Marist College. At a gathering that was held at the Bowler home after the cemetery services, the younger grandsons were running around the house with their football helmets on. They were catching passes from Bowler’s brother Kevin in the backyard of his home. Like their grandfather, they flashed a brilliant smile as they were running around and tackling each other.
At this sad time, as the Bowler family came together and at several points during this trying week, they could be heard laughing at colorful memories of this unique man. At the church service at Infant Jesus Church in Port Jeffeson, his younger son, Michael, soundly recalled the dynamic ways and “quirks” of his father that had given so much to all those around him. It was hard to find a seat or place to stand as family members, neighbors, friends, current and former teachers, players and coaches all gave a final goodbye to a person that garnered so much affection. And these accounts that were creatively stated by Michael produced a large roar of laughter from the crowd. Each in turn easily recalled the genuine ways of this former husband, parent, family member, educator, coach, church member, neighbor and veteran.
At the final wake services, where there were close to a thousand people that stood on line to share the numerous positive qualities of Bowler, 2010 high school graduate Michael Muller addressed the true meaning of this man. In front of a packed house, Muller, a graduate and a lacrosse player from Dartmouth College, said his life would have been vastly differently if it was not for the constant presence and guidance of “Coach Bowler.” Muller echoed the sentiments of this North Shore community that truly appreciated the dedication of Michael P. Bowler, who always looked to enhance the school district.
The life of this “Renaissance man” could be summed up through the words of Lombardi who told his own players, “Once a man has made a commitment to a way of life, he puts the greatest strength in the world behind him. It’s something we call heart power. Once a man has made this commitment, nothing will stop short of success.”
Through all of his amazing deeds to his family and school, Bowler has surely lived up to a high benchmark of excellence on and off the field.
Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.