Texas Methodist pastor and canoe builder stays in touch with simpler time

Posted Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Starr Bowen is an outdoorsman who is difficult to define. The physical characteristics aren’t hard; he’s medium height, maybe just slight of medium build but with an obvious fitness level that comes from everyday physical activity, not a gym membership.

He has gray hair, kind of wispy in places and a woodsman’s beard of fair length, but on the thin side. The stem of his full-bent pipe drops neatly to the side of his chin.

Bowen is also the Rev. Starr Bowen, pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Gordon, a town just a few miles off Interstate 20 in the Cross Timbers region of the state near Stephenville, southwest of Fort Worth. He is also Dr. Bowen with a Ph.D. in theology and ethics from the University of St. Andrews; the one in Scotland, in case there are others.

He earned his Ph.D. following a master’s from Duke, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Edinburgh, again in Scotland. He is from the Fort Worth area; went to high school at Hurst L.D. Bell. Somewhere in there he also spent more than 20 years of missionary service in South America, Mexico and Cuba.

All of those experiences helped him become a master builder of beautiful, functional, wooden canoes. It is not a simple journey to chart or comprehend.

At the church parsonage, directly behind the red brick Methodist Church in Gordon, Bowen sits at a small kitchen table and over coffee begins to define his story. In a workroom outside, one of his canoes rests on a long bench awaiting a refinish; a handful of others sit on stands in his back yard.

As he starts, it is clear he is a modest man who won’t dwell on his personal achievements, but prefers to simply connect the pathways that led to his seemingly serendipitous adventure.

“My mother and father both worked for the Star-Telegram,” he said as a preamble, “so did I, on Friday and Saturday nights.” One of his first forays was partly financed by the paper, he added.

He won a newspaper scholarship that he used to follow his dream of becoming an aerospace engineer at Georgia Tech University. Within a semester, however, he learned that the transformation from high school to Tech’s engineering school was a larger step than he was prepared to take.

But he did make contacts at the Atlanta school and he soon moved to the Pacific Northwest where he signed on for a job aboard an oceanographic research vessel. It wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, either, but another contact sent him traveling to Edinburgh, where he finally succumbed to a calling he had felt for years, the ministry.

Throughout his journey, he had always been on the water. He canoed the Brazos as a Boy Scout, fished the cold waters off the shores of Scotland and, when he went to his first church in Savannah, Ga., he continued using his paddling skills to take kids canoeing in the slews and bayous of coastal Georgia.

But it wasn’t until he returned to Scotland, to St. Andrews, that he started building his own vessels. “I remember being in the basement of the library at St. Andrews — a small, dark room — reading a lot of German philosophy in the German language,” he said. “I knew I had to get out of there and do something with my hands to survive.”

He had read an article about a well-known canoe maker, and Bowen decided to set up a small workshop in a nearby fishing village to try his hand. “I just had the article,” he said. “No plans or drawings. I just wanted to build a canoe I could finish; to use my hands for something I could use.” He finished it, and his studies at St. Andrews.

Over the years, especially in South America, Bowen watched the indigenous people use their canoes. He gathered more understanding of their use and versatility.

Eventually, he made his way back to North Texas where he spent some time as a pastor in Cleburne, then Stephenville, and eventually Gordon.

Now, though he seems somewhat out of place on the dry, mesquite-laced hills of near west Texas, he keeps his connection with his canoes alive through his business, his frequent trips to Canada to the north and the Laguna Madre on the Texas coast to the south. Needless to say, the church youth get many opportunities to canoe the nearby Brazos.

He remains emotionally and spiritually attached to his canoes, he says, because they remind him of a simpler time. It is a release to him now, just as it was when he was sequestered in that small, Scottish basement laboring over German philosophy.

“As a pastor, I hear a lot about people’s problems,” he said. “That’s part of my job. But occasionally, I need to get away from it to something more quiet and natural. I do it in the canoe where I’m reminded of its ancient simplicity and utility.”

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