Following Fowler

Sue Kullen, Betty and Bernie Fowler at the 2010 Patuxent River Wade-In. Photo: Bill Lambrecht.

Never, Never, Never Say Never 

By Sandra Olivetti Martin 

Things will be different on Sunday, June 12, when Bernie Fowler’s historic Wade-In tests the clarity of the Patuxent River for the 34th time. This year, Bernie won’t be in the center of the human chain that wades right in for an annual checkup on the health of his beloved river. The legendary champion of the river reached the end of his 97-year life on December 12, 2021.  

The Wade-In continues this year, and Fowler’s example lives on. For it takes single-minded determination to knock, bang and ram against doors that stay closed. 

Bernie Fowler had that kind of determination. He was a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Persistence made Fowler a hero of the five-decade-long effort to restore the Chesapeake watershed. 

Chesapeake bard Tom Wisner started him on his way with a song: “Bernie Fowler Day: A Guide to Wading in the Southern Maryland Waters.” 

“It came ‘round to Bernie Fowler 

And he stood among the best. 

He said, “folks, if you’ll bear with me, 

I think I got a test.” 

“I think I have a measure 

That can’t be beat 

You just wade out in the river 

And look down to see your feet.” 


Chesapeake chronicler Tom Horton put Fowler’s Wade-In in National Geographic magazine. Wade-Ins caught on throughout the watershed.  

Politicians—county commissioners, Maryland legislators, a succession of Maryland governors, U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer, U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, Environmental Protection Agency administrators; scientists, citizens, school children—all joined in getting their feet wet.  

This year, organizers say they are unsure which officials might turn out. 

With many allies, Fowler campaigned for half a century to make the Patuxent River the Chesapeake’s—and the nation’s—model for restoration. 

He was a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

Director of Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum Greg Pierce measures the depth from the surface of the Patuxent to Sen. Bernie Fowler’s feet on Sunday, June 13, 2021 in Calvert County, Md. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)

The Measure of a Man 

Fowler’s stubborn streak started early and lasted long. 

At 24, he was not long back from service in the Pacific in World War II when love motored into his life. He’d left the grind of Washington, D.C. to return home to rural Calvert County. He’d worked at a boat rental operation as a kid, and that was the business he chose for his first entrepreneurial venture, with a $4,000 G.I. Bill loan for start-up money. Bernie’s Boats had a fleet of 28 rowboats, eight Johnson outboard motors and a snack shop where his mother served 35-cent crabcake sandwiches, from crab she’d picked herself. 

Down to Bernie’s Boats for an excursion on the Patuxent River came a family with a 16-year-old daughter. Within hours, Bernie knew Betty was the girl for him. Within months, he’d convinced her and her family. 

Thus began, Fowler said, “a romance that never ended” and a Wade-In partner for decades. 

Before romance, before the war, Bernie had already proved himself a fellow who could turn no into yes. He became the first member of his family to graduate from high school. 

  “Boys didn’t go to high school from Broomes Island,” he told me in one of our many interviews over three decades. “You got old enough to see over the culling board, you tonged oysters. The philosophy was, ‘Send them up [to school] and you’re going to ruin them. They won’t know how to do anything.’ You worked the river, farmed or didn’t eat.” 

Bernie proved the common wisdom wrong. From both school and service, he came back home, back to the river—with ideas. 

For the Love of the Patuxent 

The Patuxent River was Fowler’s other lifelong romance, one Betty might have looked on jealously were she that kind of a woman.  

“The Patuxent was one of the most productive rivers in the Chesapeake watershed,” Bernie told me. “People called the river a breadbasket and meat house.” It fed his family—his whole county—during the Great Depression. 

When banks closed their doors, locking people’s money inside, the Patuxent “in its goodness and kindness,” gave them fish, crab and oysters,” he said. 

“You stood on the sand and could look in the river and see big jumbo crabs 20 feet away hidden in the grass or behind an old tin can.” Crabs were the family’s food and income.  

Back in those days, Fowler’s “dear, generous river” ran clear, 115 miles from its source in the hills of Maryland’s Piedmont to its confluence with the Chesapeake. 

Between 1946 and 1966, as the Patuxent degraded, Fowler became a successful, diversified businessman with a family. But he couldn’t forget “the affection I had for the kindness the river showed.” He became the river’s champion. “It was a project I really had my heart in,” he said. 

Doing that brought him to a door on which he never imagined knocking. 

“There were two things I didn’t want to do: be a politician and sell booze for a living,” he told me. “I never sold booze, but I did renege on the other.” 

Politics Beckons 

 Fowler ran for county school board in 1962, and Calvert voters said yes. He stayed in politics from 1963 to 1994. 

“I was almost forced to by issues going on in Calvert County,” he told me.   

By 1970—after six years on the School Board—Fowler campaigned for a seat on the Calvert County Board of Commissioners on a promise to clean up the Patuxent, which, he often said, had become one of the most polluted rivers on the East Coast. A big part of the problem was upriver sewage treatment plants discharging what later came to be called point-source pollution. 

Nitrogen and phosphorus from imperfect sewage treatment fed fast-spreading algal blooms, which used up oxygen. Oysters, one of the indicators of healthy water, could not survive as sediment covered their beds and disease moved in. 

“We’ve lost an important part of our culture,” Fowler said. “So in 1970, when I was elected into the County Commissioners, the river was one of my hot buttons.” 

As a Calvert commissioner, Fowler had his platform.  

“My first act, I went up to Annapolis, and I visited Gov. Marvin Mandel, “ he recalled. “I spoke to the attorney general, then the head of DNR. ‘If we lose the river, we lose the Bay,’ I said, ‘and Maryland loses its heart.’ All I got was a pat on the back.” 

Even turned back fro the doors of power, Fowler was determined not to take no for an answer. At the Tri-County Council, representing Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s, regional planners listened.  

“I made a passionate speech. ‘The river is dying, oysters and fish are going to leave,’ I said. ‘We can build a monument: Here lies the Patuxent River. Or we can flex our muscles, put some money together, hire an environmental attorney and see if we have any recourse in court.’” Three or four people took their handkerchiefs out.     

“One of them jumped up and said, ‘Right! We’ll get nowhere ‘til you sue the bastards.’” They did, starting in 1977. 

“We won two suits. We forced Howard County to do an environmental impact statement on its water treatment plant. In the bigger suit, against the state and the federal EPA, the judge said they had to make a plan to fix up the river, not assist growth.” 

With political and scientific persuasion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged nitrogen, compounded by phosphorus, was messing up the river’s ecosystem. 

Money flowed into taking the nitrogen out of the effluent of a major sewage treatment plants along the river. The strategy was to see whether one plant made a difference. Along the river were nine more major plants for a total of 35 all together. 

Sewage treatment plant upgrades, combined with a host of new pollution-reduction programs, showed success. Between 1985 and 2005, nitrogen in the Patuxent decreased by 26 percent, phosphorus by 46 and sediment by 35 percent—despite ever-increasing residential and commercial development. 

Finally, a decade into the fight, Fowler had heard a “yes” on behalf of his beloved river. 

He was also gaining traction in the political realm: In 1982, he was elected to the Maryland State Senate. He should have been happy. But a primary goal was elusive: He wanted Maryland to put many of its environmental eggs—its state and federal resources—into one pot: the Patuxent River. 

The Patuxent would become the laboratory for Baywide restoration—even as the river’s health continued to decline. So Fowler and his musician friend Tom Wisner came up with a new strategy, the Wade-In. Wisner wrote a song to go with it.  

“You just wade out in the river, 

give it all you got 

Right up to your chest. 

And then you pick your spot.” 

“Next you take your peepers 

And cast them slowly down 

On the day we see our feet again 

There’ll be celebration in this town.” 


In 1988, in a human chain that linked Fowler, Wisner and an increasing number of allies, Fowler began the stunt that would become known far and wide: the Wade-In. The unscientific method involves walking from the shore into the Patuxent until Fowler’s white sneakers are no longer visible. A yardstick is fetched, and for many years Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer has measured how many inches up Bernie’s pants legs the river rose before his sneakers disappeared. The result is graphed in highs and lows in the-now famous Bernie Fowler Sneaker Index. 

Fowler’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all have been links in the human chain. This year, a member of his family will lead the procession. 

The brilliance of the strategy generated a public relations bonanza unequaled in the campaign to clean up Chesapeake Bay. 

It’s no puzzle why Bernie’s sneaker test caught on. What Bernie did, everybody can understand. 

“The scientists had told them 

Everything they knew, 

Still—the folks were puzzled 

And they didn’t know what to do.” 

“It’s Bernie’s measure! 

It’s simple—yet profound. 

We got a treasure! 

You can’t buy it by the pound.” 


By the early years of the 21st century, wade-ins had spread from the Patuxent River throughout Maryland up to Howard County and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which preferred a Dip-In as a water-clarity measurement tool. 

But as Fowler climbed into his 90s, still wading and advocating, his faith was tested. Hard as he’d pushed, his great plan had never come to fruition. As 2020 approached, momentum had slid back down hill. Some politicians were less interested in Bay health; the population continued to grow, counterbalancing gains in the river’s health; newcomers had only a passing connection with the river earlier generations knew so well; sediment, nitrogen, and toxins assaulted the watershed and river by land, water and air; and restoration deadlines continued to pass unmet. 

With his wife Betty’s death in November of 2018, after 69 “glorious years of marriage,” Fowler looked to the future with determined pessimism. At 95, he knew he would not live to see his river’s recovery. 

Thus, in his last years, Fowler developed a new slogan: “We will never, never, never, never give up.” 

Those were the last words in our last interview. 

The word farewell has two different meanings. 

In one sense, it’s the salutation Fowler’s followers will offer to Bernie and Betty in this year’s Wade-In. In another sense, it’s a message of hope once again offered to Bernie Fowler’s beloved Patuxent River. 

Patuxent River Wade-In: June 12, 1pm, Jefferson Patterson Park, St. Leonard: