Jon Bowerman always wanted to be a cowboy.
The black sheep of the Bowerman family lives alone in the John Day Fossil Beds — a remote, rugged semi-desert of multi-colored badlands carved by the John Day River over 200 miles east of his family’s home in Eugene. A rusty sign nailed in two posts marks the entrance to the ranch he purchased with the help of a small investment from his father’s former up-and-coming company, Nike. He has no internet, email or cable television and, at age 80, begins his days at dawn with a 20-mile journey on his horse around the patch of high desert he calls home.
Many people today know the tales of Jon’s father, Bill Bowerman — the iconic track and field coach and Nike co-founder who spurred the growth of University of Oregon athletics into a distance running dynasty.
In his days at Oregon, Bill’s coaching style was highly innovative: a style that Jon said was dictated by fundamentals, intimidation and a strong understanding of each individual. But Jon and his two younger brothers, Jay and Tom, saw a different side of their father, a side that wasn’t overbearing.
A cowboy, a biologist and an architect, the three Bowerman brothers led separate lives since their atypical childhoods. Their lives were not determined by the grand legacy of their father’s name, but by the strong individualism embodied by each brother.
The humble but headstrong stories of Jon, Jay and Tom portray a Bowerman legacy of their own. It is one of pride, self-determination and temperance that likens to their father, who the brothers agree set out to build Nike not out of greed, but out of a simple, highly motivated desire to make lighter, more affordable shoes for athletes.
Tom, the youngest of the three, said that if someone was in Bill’s world, particularly in track and field, it was his way or the highway. But Bill separated his roles as coach and father: He was open-minded and encouraged his sons to follow their interests.
“My dad was so invested and focused on what he was doing, whether that was with coaching, teaching or Nike, that he only supported us doing our own thing,” Tom said. “He would just say to us, ‘Be good, follow your heart and stay out of trouble.’ He never felt a need to encourage me or demean me from not doing something that he loved.”
Soon after graduating from UO with a degree in architecture, Tom moved to San Francisco where he became heavily involved in protests against the Vietnam War.
The Bowermans have a history in the military. Bill fought behind enemy lines in World War II as a major of the U.S. Army in the mountains of Northern Italy. As a marine, Jon guarded the U.S. Embassy in Honduras. At the peak of the Vietnam War, Jay, the middle son, was accepted into the U.S. Army biathlon training center in Anchorage, Alaska, and he was not required to serve.
But when Tom dropped out of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, Bill supported Tom, and like his son, eventually turned his opinions 180 degrees to oppose the Vietnam War. Tom moved back into his parents’ house with his bride-to-be, but the choice brought family tension.
“My father came to me and said, ‘I don’t like that you’re not married. It goes against my values. But you’re my son, and your mother wants you to live here together, so I’m going to accept it.’ He wasn’t some rigid idealogue.” Tom said.
After living on a hippie commune along Fern Ridge Lake, Tom returned home by his mother’s request to help care for his father when he was diagnosed with dementia late in his life. On Christmas Eve of 1999, Bill passed away at the age of 88 in his hometown of Fossil, Oregon. Today, Tom remains on the family farm along the Mckenzie River.
Bill’s endeavors in athletics consumed much of his life, allowing for the majority of the parenting to be placed on their mother, Barbara. Each of the three say they were influenced by her to lead simple lives, care for the environment and be welcoming hosts.
Jay — a retired biologist who studied amphibian ecology in Bend — said he has grown to be caring, soft spoken and sensitive, like his mother. Time spent around the farm with her instilled a deep fascination for the natural history of the outdoors, he said.
“Now having been a parent, I see that one of the major challenges with households is finding a way to ensure that the parenting has a consistent pattern,” Jay said. “It’s very difficult for children when they have parents with divided interests, but my mother always helped with that.”
Jay was the most talented athlete of the three brothers and ran the 800 meters in high school.
“Like any unexperienced runner, I always went out way too fast and finished clear at the back,” said Jay, who laughed as he recalled his father’s words after sprinting the first 200 meters of a state championship race, leading to his embarrassing last-place finish. “His comment to me was, ‘That was a perfect first 200 if you were planning on running 1:48.’ I ended up running 2:18 I think.”
Bill, a mastermind at cultivating world-class distance runners, was always willing to offer Jay advice on the track, but remained careful not to intrude on other coaches.
“He clearly had the fundamental ability to either watch, wait and see where there’s a need for intervention, or where to let talent grow,” Jay said.
Jon, the high-desert rancher, spent many years as a coach, like his father. He coached Olympic skiers, world champions in rodeo and a baseball team in Honduras despite his limited knowledge of Spanish.
“I was never exactly interested in school,” said Jon, picking up bundles of wood which he thrusts into the flames of his cast iron stove. “The only thing I was really interested in was sports. Not saying I was any good, though. But I loved to coach. I started coaching when I was a junior in high school and it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life.”
Recently, Jon reached semi-celebrity status after appearing as a main character in the Netflix documentary series “Wild Wild Country.” The series tells the story of the Rajneeshpuram — a spiritual cult from India that flocked to a 64,000-acre plot of land in Oregon — just across the river from Jon’s property. The cult quickly grew into a commune of over 50,000 people and began to spread, purchasing large sums of property from locals nearby.
Bill, who had recently passed down his stake in Nike, was infuriated by the commune. He bought a ranch just down the road from Jon’s to stop the Rajneesh and protect his son’s property from becoming landlocked. Bill moved out to the ranch and founded Citizens for Constitutional Cities to sue the commune over land use with the help of Oregon Attorney General and future UO President Dave Frohnmayer.
While his father led the legal fight, Jon took an entirely different route. Jon mocked the cult, writing columns, songs and reciting poems that satirized the Rajneesh.
One evening at the local grange, members of the Rajneesh heard Jon recite one of his poems. The cult members returned to the commune and told secretary Ma Anand Sheela what they had heard. Amused, Sheela called and requested that Jon join them at the commune to recite his poem for the highest-ranking members. After accepting the invitation, Jon not only read his poem proudly to the leaders, but also recited it to hundreds of members of the commune.
“I think I spent more time and learned more about my father those years than I did many other portions of my life,” said Jon. “Even though he never told me it, when he moved down the road, I knew he was really trying to make a difference for us. Call me crazy, but I loved that whole fight. I guess that’s just the cowboy in me.”
It has been a quiet life alone on the secluded Bowerman ranch in recent years. But it’s the life Jon has wanted since he was 4 years old. Caring for the ranch and repairing his house all on his own has kept him “active” and “spry.”
“Nowadays, nobody goes to bed each night and says to themselves, ‘Tomorrow, I get to wake up and go to work,’” Jon said. “I say that to myself every day because each day out here is a new adventure.”
Jon, Jay and Tom agree their father never set out for fame or fortune. Bill did what he loved, and things worked out, so his sons followed suit. The Nike fortune therefore became less important to the them compared to finding their own paths.
Although many in track and field today know the Bowerman name, partially due to the annual NCAA award “The Bowerman” given to the best male and female athletes in collegiate track and field, Jay said he and his brothers feel a sense of relief that people are beginning to forget who their father was. They hold onto the memories of their childhood, recognize the inspiration they derived from their parents, but choose to forget about the legacy behind their name.
“There’s a recurring emotional thing that wells up on a regular basis ever since he died,” Jay said. “Now, anywhere I go, day or night, I see people out jogging. Every now and then, I think that there’s a little piece of my father.”