Called to Serve, or the Ballad of Uncle Bobby

Having never witnessed a Baptist minister preach before, fear and trepidation ran through my chilled frame as I first observed Robert “Uncle Bobby” Bowden preach. Electricity seemed to fill the sanctuary as Uncle Bobby rose to his feet and delivered a sermon brimming with hellfire and damnation.

Resting gently in his hands, the opened scriptures served more as a prop to hammer the unwitting Mormon youth who eagerly rose to their feet to challenge his bold doctrinal assertions than for reading.

One by one, and without hesitation, Uncle Bobby dismissed the inexperienced youth and schooled them in the art of Bible bashing. There were none who could best him. This was one Baptist you did not want at your barbecue.

Uncle Bobby knew the scriptures backwards and forwards; front to back; inside and out. He was a veritable Bible answer man. Not only that, he also knew the Book of Mormon and other Latter-Day scriptures better than almost any Mormon. Of course, Uncle Bobby wasn’t your average Baptist minister; he was a self-described Baptist-Mormon minister.

Robert Bowden served as the director of the Mesa Arizona Temple Visitor’s Center Youth Guides. On Sunday nights, Uncle Bobby ran a clinic during the Sunday night meetings on resolving concerns and answering questions about Mormon doctrine. When confronting him on the platform, you felt like you were actually talking to a real-life Baptist minister.

Although diminutive in stature, no one stood taller than Uncle Bobby did in spirit and enthusiasm for the gospel.

Uncle Bobby also loved to sing.

When the business of the meeting completed, Uncle Bobby reached for his hymnal and pulled out every revival hymn he could find. One of his most beloved hymns was “How Great Thou Art.” And when Uncle Bobby led the singing, you got a real dose of Southern-fried religion.

Second only to “How Great Thou Art,” Uncle Bobby loved “Called to Serve.” The pianist of the group played the hymn with fervor unmatched even in the Provo Missionary Training Center (MTC) and the assembled youth sounded more like returned missionaries than a group of high-school students.

Uncle Bobby loved the youth of HIS program. Yes, the program was mostly his creation and next to his wife and children, one of his greatest passions. He loved missionary work and more than that he loved teaching young men and women how to effectively share the gospel with others. His testimony of the gospel resonated with the common man. He was a simple man, unpretentious and lacking in guile. The youth of the program loved him dearly.

Through his efforts, Uncle Bobby helped send hundreds of youth to the MTC, better prepared to share the gospel and more effective missionaries when they reached the field.

After his release from the Youth Guide program, Uncle Bobby maintained contact with his youth. He often led singing with them in front of the Mesa Temple’s reflecting pond during the Christmas season. His eyes lit up every time he met with the youth he once led and taught.

In his later years, Uncle Bobby suffered from health problems and the youth guides knew their time to sing with him was drawing to a close.

Last December, a small group of former youth guides assembled at Uncle Bobby’s house and sang hymns with him for the last time.

Tears flowed freely as the group sang Uncle Bobby’s favorite hymns. As a final goodbye, the group sang “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” With emotions unrestrained, he rose to his feet and hugged each person before they left. One participant noted fondly that Uncle Bobby gently kissed her cheek as she hugged him.

On Wednesday, March 10, Uncle Bobby was called home to share his enthusiasm and zeal for missionary work behind this mortal veil.

He will be missed by the hundreds of youth whose lives he touched and blessed. God be with you till we meet again, Uncle Bobby.

20 thoughts on “Called to Serve, or the Ballad of Uncle Bobby

  1. So sad to hear of his passing. He was an amazing person whom I will never forget. We were all so lucky and blessed to be a part of that program… Thanks for writing this. I would have never known without this post coming up on FB.

  2. Uncle Bobby had a habit of calling everyone “fuzzy britches.” I’m not sure if he used that as a term of endearment, or, if like me, he could not remember people’s names. Whatever the case may have been, you could feel his love the minute he stepped into the room. He radiated love!

    I will forever treasure that last time when a small group of us gathered in his living room to sing hymns. In my heart, I knew it would be the last time I would see him in mortality. Our final embrace is a moment I will never forget. How I loved that man!!

    Uncle Bobby touched the lives of so many. His son Brent, also a former youth guide, remarked on his Facebook page that he knew his dad had an impact on so many people, but did not realize how large of a wake he had left.

    This post is a poor tribute to someone so great as he, but it as all I have to offer.

  3. I am afraid I’ve never heard of Uncle Bobby. He sounds like such an interesting person. How did you know him?

  4. Bruce,

    Prior to leaving for my mission, I served as a youth guide at the Mesa Arizona Temple Vistor’s Center. The Youth Guide program was designed for young people to help them share the gospel and prepare for missions. The program no longer exists.

  5. “Fuzzy britches.” Ha! I’d forgotten that.

    I was a Youth Guide in the post-Uncle Bobby era, but he still came around once in a while. He kinda freaked me out at first, but soon it was clear who he was: a gentle but zealous disciple of Christ.

    Preach on, Uncle Bobby.

  6. I’d love to see him in action or perhaps read more about the way he taught the youth. As a current Seminary teacher, I’d like more of that special ability to connect with the youth we serve. Do you know if any recordings or other printed material like that exists? Thank you for your tribute.

  7. Bob and Jerri Bowden were friends of ours since I was a little tyke in El Paso, Texas, in the ’50s. My Dad and Mom, Edwin and Ethna Jones, were very very close to them, best friends. We all ended up in Mesa in 1961, in the same ward for decades. I baby sat their kids many times. Bob was my mentor and hero all through high school and, many years later when I would visit Mesa, he would play his “Baptist-Gospel-Piano” while I would pretend to be a southern-fried preacher and spouted Hell-Fire-and-Damnation. We had some great laughs and some great times! I’ll miss you, old buddy.
    Maury Jones, Star Valley, Wyoming

  8. Bob Bowden was in our 40th Ward in Mesa for many years and was such a good example of good for myself and my children. I also played many years of softball and athletics with his Son Robby. Bob was great balance of being Christ Like yet retaining zany sense of humor and able to laugh and be silly. I still remember his stirring talk about Christ and the Crucifixion on one Easter Morning that brought the entire Ward Congregation to tears. Bob Bowden is of the same ilk as our Aunts and Uncles and Parents from Virden…No greater compliment is there.. Brent Anderson

  9. I had the pleasure of meeting Bob Bowden and the youth guides during the summer of 1990 when The New Era sent me to Arizona to write an article on the youth guide program. Bob was a remarkable man and the youth guide program was a reflection of his passion for missionary work. And I’ve never heard “Called to Serve” sung with such power before or since! I feel very blessed to have crossed paths with Bob, his daughter Leslie, and the youth guides and I’m very sorry to learn of his passing.

  10. Mary Ellen,

    So nice to have you stop by and comment. I was on my mission when the article was written and published, but I sure enjoyed reading it. Thank you for reminding me about the article. Here is a link to that article: http://bit.ly/chcpbx

  11. Uncle Bob Bowden, as we all called him for as long as I can remember, was one of my alltime favorite people. As Maury mentioned, he could relly raise the roof with his gospel songs on the piano and his Baptist preaching. He taught us young bucks a lot of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and did it in a way that we didn’t realize we were being taught; sometimes entertaining and some times serious, but we sure remembered everything. We’ll all miss him greatly, but I’m sure he is continuing the missionary work on the other side that he started here. Keep up the good work, Uncle Bob. “God Be With You ‘Till We Meet Again” Greer Jones, Driggs,Idaho

  12. Thank you, Brian, for this beautiful tribute. I was sad to hear of Uncle Bobby’s passing, but know he is doing his “thing” on the other side. He’s a busy many, no doubt. He taught me so much and helped fuel the fire of the gospel, during a tough and challenging adolescence, that still burns bright today! I will never forget one Sunday, after our training meeting, at the church behind the Temple, we all gathered in the Visitor’s Center around the Christus, closed the curtain and sang, “How Great Thou Art.” I still have photos from that day. I also have an old VHS of a training meeting and the Temple grounds, during Christmas time. I need to get that on my computer to share. Besides the favorite songs already mentioned, “Let Us All Press On” was a favorite too. I was sitting in sacrament this past Sunday and while we sang our closing hymn, “Called to Serve,” I smilled. Thanks Uncle Bobby!

  13. This was beautifully written. Thank you for posting it. I’ve often wondered what happened to Bro. Bowden, what he was doing. I haven’t heard anything about him for so many years. That program made a difference in my life when I most needed it. It kept me grounded at a time when I was having trouble keeping my balance. I will forever be grateful to him and the other members of the program. I’m glad that others were able to stay in touch with him and stay close to him.

  14. I remember Uncle Bob Bowden and thank him for the marvelous preparation for the MTC that occurred the Temple Visitors Center. It was an honor to be a youth guide and to see miracles happen in all our lives. I can still remember the garden tour and I give it to my children every time we visit the temple as a family. Many friends were made. Good times were had. Spirituality was increased. Thank you for the wonderful memories.

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