CORBIN — By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
“I’m sure there’s not many households in Laurel County these past two days where his name hasn’t been brought up. Everybody always talked good about him.”
Those words came Tuesday from Barbra Rudder, who formerly worked for John Bowling. Everybody called him “Big John.”
Friends and co-workers at the Laurel County Jail (now Laurel County Detention Center) said Bowling was a friendly bear of a man with a big personality and heart to match.
Big John Bowling, who served as Laurel County Jailer from January 1978 to September of 1988, died Sunday at St. Joseph London hospital. He was 72.
Those who knew Bowling said he was unique in connecting with everyone.
“Big John was a true fixture in this community. There are very few people that everybody knew and everybody liked. He was a fixture in Laurel County. Definitely,” said London Mayor Troy Rudder after Monday’s City Council meeting.
He took care of inmates at the jail, his wife Imogene fed them good, and the staff was loyal, efficient and worked together to make the facility highly regarded throughout the state. As a result, Bowling was recognized for having the best jail in Kentucky during his time in office. He was also named Jailer of the Year for two straight years — in 1978 and 1979.
When it was lunchtime, several in town knew where to go to get their fix of vittles. One of the many who walked down the street to see Big John and Imogene was Larry Bryson, now Attorney for the City of London and the Laurel County Board of Education.
“We used to go to the jail from court and eat lunch at the jail. We’d have soup beans, cornbread and Big John’s wife made the meal,” he pointed out Monday evening.
Barbra Rudder worked for Bowling for about four-and-a-half years. She added Big John and Imogene made a great team together.
“She’d fix all the meals, and when she made cheesecake, the inmates would trade different kinds of food or other things just to get an extra piece of cheesecake. He’d feed the grand jury on days when they were in session, and didn’t care to feed anybody if he thought they were hungry. Big John, loved people and liked dealing with people,” said Rudder, who returned to work in 1994 and is currently the court liaison officer for the Laurel County Detention Center.
Laurel County Court Clerk Dean Johnson remembered Big John as a man who really enjoyed being with and around people.
“He was a humble man, a very lively person, and he always had good things to say about everybody. I knew Big John for several years. When he first got elected in 1977, I was elected county treasurer, and we had a good working relationship. He definitely was a people person. That’s very true,” Johnson said in his office at the Courthouse on Tuesday afternoon.
“Everybody around town had heard about Big John when I first moved here around 1989. When I first started campaigning about three years ago, so many of the homes you would go to would bring up Big John’s name, how he took care of the prisoners, and how they remembered the Christmas lights. It was amazing that a man who’d been out of office for over 20 years was so highly respected and so well remembered,” noted Laurel County’s current Jailer, Jamie Mosley.
At Christmastime, Bowling transformed the outside of the jail into a celebration of the season. Most Londoners and Laurel Countians fondly remember the Christmas lights to this day.
“People used to drive to the jail to see the Christmas lights, and traffic would be lined up just to take a look at those lights. The Christmas light decorations on the jail were on postcards,” Bryson remembered.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Mosley recalled a conversation he had with Bowling about that holiday tradition.
“During the campaign, I talked with him and I told him, ‘John, if I win this thing, I want to bring back the Christmas lights in your honor.’ I did win, and thought about the Christmas lights. I knew when he did it, there was a separate meter to light those Christmas lights with electricity that he paid for himself. No tax dollars were used for the light display, and I did the same thing.”
When Christmastime 2011 came, Mosley got the lights ready.
“I had a plaque made in his honor, and he got to throw the switch. We’ve had a lot of great things happen here in the last two-and-a-half years. But seeing the look on John’s face when he threw that switch and watching the Christmas lights come on again, I’ll never forget that. Some former inmates came up to Big John and thanked him for his care, concern and compassion when they were incarcerated there,” he noted.
Shortly before Mosley took over, Barbra Rudder got a call from Big John.
“He said if I’d like to work with Jamie and stay at the jail when Jamie took office. I said I would, and I thought it was an honor to be recommended by Big John, and to work with Jamie. Both of them have big hearts,” she said.
In an article written by Nita Johnson of our sister paper in London, The Sentinel-Echo, Bowling and his family were featured last spring in that paper’s publication “Sliver.”
The Johnson article said Bowling met his wife, Imogene at a church dinner at the Piney Grove Holiness Church on Ky. 363, after he received an invitation to attend by the church’s pastor at the time, Bobby Medley.
Johnson wrote, “Bowling and Medley were good friends, and Imogene, who was married at the time, and Medley’s wife were good friends, though Bowling and Imogene had never met. When Bowling sampled some macaroni salad at the dinner that Sunday, he was impressed.”
His daughter, Joyce Parker, told Johnson in the interview, “He said he told Bobby that he didn’t know who made that macaroni salad, but if she was single, he was going to marry her. So Bobby introduced John to Mom.”
According to the article, their meeting was one of the highlights in Imogene’s life. In 1964, her husband at the time died in a traffic accident, leaving her to raise children by herself. Around 1966, Imogene began working at Warner’s store in London, and “later worked at Hoskins Grocery on Ky. 363, where she met John again when he came into the store one day.”
Johnson’s story noted, “The couple began dating, with Imogene insisting on taking the children with her on dates, even though other family members offered to take the children.”
Daughter Barbara Wells told Johnson in the article, “When she and John dated, she wouldn’t go without us. John had a truck with a camper on it and we’d ride in the back and look through the window into the front.”
Both John and Imogene would marry six years later.
“I was sitting down and thinking, you take everyday things for granted when you work together for so long. You think about his kindness, the way he treated everybody. He wanted to be fair with everyone and be good to them. My sympathies and prayers are with his family. It’s always sad when you lose someone,” Barbra Rudder said.
Johnson added about Bowling, “The way he treated his prisoners, the way he ran the jail, and the way he treated the people. He took an interest in everyone, and they did the same to him in return. That’s Big John’s legacy.”
There was this from Mosley as well. “He was one of those people that made you feel like you were his best friend. So kind and genuine. To know that he was one of my supporters, you know if John believed in you, that meant something. He’ll be greatly missed.”
Outside the main entrance of the detention center Tuesday afternoon, a floral wreath stood a few feet nearby. Purchased by the staff and employees of the jail, the wreath was placed there in memory of John Bowling.
Along with his wife, Imogene, Big John is survived by five children — four daughters and one son. Ten grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren also survive.
Bowling’s visitation was held after 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Bowling Funeral Home chapel in London. His funeral will be held today (Wednesday) at 1 p.m., also at the Bowling Funeral Home chapel. Burial will follow in the McDaniel Cemetery in London.