Life Stories

Life Stories: Activist Bill Towe, a voice against war and for the poor

CorrespondentNovember 10, 2013 

Bill Towe.

COURTESY OF MARIA TOWE

  • William H. Towe

    Born: March 27, 1933

    Family: An only child, Towe marries Betsy-Jean Robertson Towe and they raise two children together, Chris and Maria Towe, who give him two grandchildren. He lives all over the Triangle, as well as in Henderson, before settling in Cary. He is widowed in 2011.

    Education: Undergraduate degree from Davidson College, master’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. Spends two years enlisted in the U.S. Army, deployed to Germany, in the late 1950s.

    Career: Leaves a position teaching history in Virginia to work full time for peace causes. His positions over the years include, but are not limited to, senior planner for the Soul City project, research director for the N.C. Voter Registration Project, the Office of Economic Opportunity under Gov. Jim Hunt, and national co-chairman of Peace Action.

    Dies: Oct. 18

Growing up in Wilson, Bill Towe often asked his parents why his nanny did not eat with them.

Though his parents demonstrated that everyone was equal in their rights, in the 1930s South they had a hard time explaining why their housekeeper and cook, an African-American woman, did not join them at the table.

In that instance, the distance kept during meal times had more to do with employment status than skin color, but it left a mark on Towe. As an adult, Towe dedicated his life to eradicating inequalities – and injustices – of any kind.

A key turning point came when Towe rejected the option to take over his father’s successful insurance company in Wilson. Following a brief stint in the military, he later left a career as a history teacher to work full time for nonprofits and state organizations seeking to bring peace where there was strife, justice where there were wrongs.

His career as an activist was often likened to that of a long-distance runner. Friends and family can now say he is finally able to rest after a lifetime of fighting for others. Towe died last month at the age of 80.

Towe’s early career had a slightly different direction – one that went straight up, as he was a tent raiser for the circus. Sometime near the end of high school, Towe, an only child, literally ran away with the circus, his children said. He was certainly running away from an unwanted career in Wilson, where a comfortable life selling insurance was ready for the taking.

“It was always assumed by my grandfather that that’s where my father would work. My dad had other plans,” said his daughter, Maria Towe.

From there he went to Davidson College, then enlisted in the military for two years and was stationed in Germany. Upon his return he earned a master’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, and embarked on a teaching career.

He met his wife of 47 years, Betsy-Jean, while teaching in Hampton, Va. They shared the same values from the start. She was the first white teacher to work in a black school, his family said, and it wasn’t long before he resigned from teaching to work for $12 a week (plus gas money) as a civil rights organizer.

Together they helped organize the Virginia Civil Rights Committee. A cross was burned in their front lawn, but rather than react with hatred, they took the stance that Ku Klux Klan members were from “poor and downtrodden” white families, he once wrote.

When they moved to North Carolina, Towe worked on various peace projects, some at the state level, some for nonprofits. No cause was off-limits, though in the end, it was his work combating weapons proliferation that was the most public.

And the most noticeable.

He designed and wore a bright blue spandex suit, of superhero design, donning a gigantic boomerang atop his head under the moniker “Captain Boomerang.”

This getup often made an appearance at the state fair, where, as he manned the N.C. Peace Action booth (he was national co-chairman of this Washington-based nonprofit) he talked about the ways the United States sold weapons to other nations, only to have those same weapons later used against American soldiers. He felt those funds would be much better spent on schools and other peace measures.

But for as overt – and brightly hued – as his political presence might have been in the public, at home he was just the opposite.

“He never really wanted to engage in political discussions. He definitely had his beliefs, but he never got up on his soap box,” said his son, Chris Towe.

Towe met Cyrus B. King, a longtime Raleigh activist, after he moved to the area in the 1980s. In recognizing Towe’s impact to fellow activists years ago, King reminded folks of Towe’s tireless dedication – and financial contributions. Many feel he personally kept Peace Action afloat.

“Anytime there was a peace demonstration like the ones at Fort Bragg on the anniversaries of the war in Iraq, Bill and Betsy-Jean were always present,” King said.

“If you have email and you were foolish enough to give your address to Bill, you have received reminders of events that you should participate in and you have received more action alerts than you can possibly respond to.

“But if you complained, as I sometimes did, you should be reminded that not only was Bill sending out those emails, he was participating in all those demonstrations, going to all those events, writing all those letters that he was asking you to write but he was at the same time keeping N.C. Peace Action alive and making a significant contribution to national Peace Action.”

His message lives on with his friends and family.

“His main thing was that everybody is human. And everybody deserves the same human rights,” Chris Towe said.

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