ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Of his many achievements in life, one that former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Harry Stowers considered among his greatest was passing a U.S. Army physical exam, allowing him to serve his country during World War II.
A native New Mexican, Stowers was born in Fort Bayard and grew up in Madrid and Silver City, where his father, also named Harry, worked in the mining industry. At age 14, Stowers was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which didn’t stop the government from drafting him some years later while he was a student and walk-on Lobo baseball player at the University of New Mexico.
Appearing before the draft board, he failed the physical exam because of his illness but was told to “come back in six months,” said his son, Joe Stowers. “He did, and was given the choice of going into the Army or going home.”
He entered the military in February 1945, during the waning days of World War II, and was sent to the Philippines where soldiers were preparing for what they thought was the imminent invasion of Japan. The atomic bomb blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki made that unnecessary, and Stowers was discharged from the Army in November 1946, after rising to the rank of first sergeant.
Stowers, 89, died July 8, surrounded by his family. He had been in failing health for more than a year, family members said.
From the Army, Stowers went on to become a prominent lawyer, state District Court judge and Supreme Court justice, mayor of Los Ranchos and a civic leader who served as a founding member of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central New Mexico and a board member of the United Community Fund, now the United Way.
“Harry was an incredibly kind, generous and resourceful fellow,” said Joyce Stowers, his wife of nearly 39 years. “He got along with everybody and was never imperious or demanding.”
Son Joe said his father was a product of the Great Depression. “He came from the absolute bottom and rose to a very high level, so you can’t forget who you are. Nothing was given to him in life, and he had to work for everything he achieved.”
After the war, Stowers returned to UNM to complete his undergraduate degree in political science and then put himself through law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., working as an aide to New Mexico Sen. Dennis Chavez, as a congressional security guard, and as a clerk in the U.S. Senate post office.
After graduating in 1955, he returned to New Mexico and served as an assistant city attorney, then an attorney in the state Attorney General’s Office before going into private practice. “He was a ‘street lawyer,’ as he called it,” said Joyce Stowers. “He did everything from automobile accidents to DWIs, to divorce, wills and criminal defense,” she said.
Joyce Stowers, a former lawyer and Superior Court judge in Flagstaff, met Harry in 1975, when both attended a monthlong training program for judges held in Reno, Nev. Harry was there for the third time and was serving as a faculty adviser. They married in October 1976. It was the second marriage for both. His previous marriage to Barbara Stowers ended in divorce after 26 years.
His career as a jurist got off to a slow start. Stowers unsuccessfully ran as a candidate for Bernalillo County District Court in 1970, but just months later Gov. Bruce King appointed him to the court to fill a vacancy. He remained on the bench until November 1982, when he won election to the New Mexico Supreme Court and later served as chief justice. He retired from the judiciary in 1989.
The call to public service brought him out of retirement in 1996, when he ran for mayor of the village of Los Ranchos and won by a single vote. He served one term and was then lured back to law, working with the Branch Law Firm until age 88.
Bill Riordan, who knew Stowers for more than 40 years and served with him on the District Court and Supreme Court, said his friend was “always prepared and knew the law very well.” Although Stowers tended to be “a very private individual,” he was quick to share a joke and engage in conversation about things in the news, he said.
Faye McAfee, Stowers’ daughter from his first marriage, said her father enjoyed playing practical jokes on people. He was also “very much a person of conviction, character and believed in doing things for yourself.”
She recalled a sign that hung in his office in District Court that read: “There is only one stairway to success. Quit looking for the elevator.”
Other survivors include daughter Liz Vigil, stepdaughters Karen and Ramona Mangum, and sister Linda Brittelle.