Chippewa Falls High School teacher Warren Bowe is recognized by student and soccer player Hazel Behling during the soccer team’s teacher appreciation day ceremony in May 2017. Behling was one of many students who valued Bowe as a mentor before he retired at the end of last school year. (Photo courtesy of Hazel Behling)
Chippewa Falls High School teacher Warren Bowe is recognized by student and soccer player Hazel Behling during the soccer team’s teacher appreciation day ceremony in May 2017. Behling was one of many students who valued Bowe as a mentor before he retired at the end of last school year. (Photo courtesy of Hazel Behling)

An otherwise healthy 57-year-old, Warren Bowe’s friends express anger, frustration over ongoing reluctance by many to wear masks, socially distance. 

When friends, relatives, and former students of Warren Bowe heard the longtime educator was in the hospital after having contracted the coronavirus, they had a tough time believing the news. 

They had worried, of course, when they learned that Bowe, a 57-year-old English teacher who had retired from Chippewa Falls High School in June, had been infected with the contagious virus. Bowe was careful when it came to COVID-19 and took such measures as wearing a face mask, maintaining social distancing, and refraining from gatherings to reduce his chances of catching it, people who knew him said. Still, he caught it. 

However, Bowe was relatively young and healthy. He didn’t have the underlying health conditions that so many of the more than 1,700 Wisconsin residents and more than 223,000 nationwide who have died from the coronavirus possessed. 

The outgoing Bowe, known for his sharp wit and warm, compassionate side, a man who inspired his students to strive for more than they thought possible, wouldn’t succumb to the virus, those who knew him thought. His strong will and energetic spirit would be too much for the illness to take a foothold. He had accomplished much in life already, and with his whole retirement ahead of him, had more he planned to do.

“Warren was fun. He was creative,” longtime Chippewa Falls elementary school counselor Sherry Jasper said. “He was a leader, too. He was a guy who everyone went to. He was that guy who made a difference in the life of everybody who met him.”   

People close to Bowe said they aren’t sure how he contacted coronavirus. He tested positive for the virus in early September, and his condition worsened. His lungs ached, and his breathing became increasingly labored. 

In late September Bowe was hospitalized at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire. Despite treatment his condition continued to deteriorate. On Oct. 18, Bowe died from COVID-19.

“It was a shock to a lot of people,” Jasper said of Bowe’s death. “At first he had no symptoms, and then all hell broke loose with the virus. The next thing we knew, he was gone.”

Bowe’s death prompted an outpouring of sorrow in Chippewa Falls, a city of 13,000 in northwest Wisconsin, and the surrounding community. He was lauded for his ability to inspire his students. Bowe was not only a teacher but the leader of the school’s speech and debate team, and he wrote and led many high school plays. 

But his loss also sparked feelings of anger and frustration. In the days after his death, many posted on social media about how the continued refusal of many people to wear masks, practice social distancing, and refrain from gatherings is prompting a continued rise in coronavirus cases and causing deaths like Bowe’s. 

“There are a lot of us former students who are really angry about this, really upset that we lost Mr. Bowe,” said Hazel Behling, a 2018 Chippewa Falls High school graduate who was a member of her high school’s National English Honor Society chapter led by Bowe. “People should do the right thing. They should wear masks and not be getting together. If they did that, maybe Mr. Bowe would still be with us.”

Bonni Knight knew Bowe from her time as a teacher at Eau Claire North High School. In the 1990s she coached speech and debate at North and Bowe and his wife Pam coached the Eau Claire Regis High School speech and debate team. She was drawn to his “brilliant yet easy going manner,” as well as his sense of humor. When Knight heard Bowe was sick with COVID-19, she figured he would rebound.

“I’m really angry about this,” Knight said days after Bowe had died. “It was so preventable. We have so many people looking science in the face and saying ‘Nah, that doesn’t matter. I can do what I want. It’s my right.’ And we have people like Warren dying because of it.” 

‘A much worse place’

Bowe’s death is an anomaly, given statistics related to the coronavirus. Elderly people and those with compromised immune systems or other health problems are more susceptible to complications and death from the contagious virus, public health officials say. Studies show about eight of every 10 COVID-19-related deaths in the US have occurred in people age 65 and older, and many of those people had underlying health problems that made their deaths more likely once they contracted the virus. 

However, as the coronavirus continues to surge in Wisconsin and across many parts of the country, more people of all ages are dying from the virus simply because there are so many more cases. In the past week alone, 190 state residents have died from the virus, nearly 12% of all COVID-19 deaths in Wisconsin since counting began in March.

As the virus spreads and reaches more people, additional otherwise healthy people like Bowe will be at risk of serious health complications and death, public health officials said. 

In another sign of the rapid spread of the virus, more than 60 percent of the state’s cases that topped 200,000 on Monday have been detected during the past two months. Those cases have been tracked by the state Department of Health Services since March.

Virus outbreaks have occurred with increasing frequency since K-12 schools and universities began various degrees of in-person instruction last month, and cases have skyrocketed in urban and rural parts of Wisconsin since then. While the state’s largest school districts opted to begin the year online only, many others include in-person instruction, and some have switched to virtual learning, at least temporarily, because of too many COVID-19 cases. 

In Eau Claire, Regis Cathlic Schools announced on Sunday its middle and high school students will spend the next two weeks learning online because of an outbreak there. Of the system’s 389 middle and high school students, eight have tested positive for COVID-19 and 164 are quarantined. Similarly, students at Whitefish Bay High School began temporary virtual learning Monday because of a virus outbreak there that has left teaching staff too thin to continue in-person instruction.   

Also on Monday, Chippewa Falls school district officials announced they will begin online-only education after Wednesday and will do so until at least the end of November after a recent spike of coronavirus cases in Chippewa County. 

On Monday the county reported 136 new cases, its highest one-day increase. The number was even higher in Eau Claire County, which reported 178 new cases and an astounding 43% positivity rate. 

Chippewa schools Superintendent Jeff Holmes said surging COVID-19 cases have impacted his district. Since Friday the number of students and staff quarantined has climbed from 178 to 289. 

“Our ability to staff due to quarantining issues has reached a point that we are unable to maintain in-person settings throughout the district,” Holmes said.    

The state is home to seven of the country’s 10 metro areas with the highest numbers of recent COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents.

“We’re in a much worse place now than we were in March and April,” DHS Secretary designee Andrea Palm said last week during a conference call with reporters about COVID-19.

Even as cases of the virus climb, public health officials in Wisconsin report continued and increasing resistance to recommendations and orders to wear face masks in public, maintain social distancing, and refrain from attending gatherings intended to slow the spread of the virus. 

People against such measures said they believe they infringe on their personal rights and don’t effectively limit the spread of the virus. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say those actions are effective at reducing transmission of COVID-19 from person to person.   

County health officers across Wisconsin told UpNorthNews while many people comply with those measures, a significant segment of the population does not. Many refuse to wear masks, they said, and others refuse to comply with contact tracing, an effort to track down people who have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus.

In Chippewa County, where Bowe taught in recent years, those who are against wearing masks have been more vocal in recent weeks, county health officer Angela Weideman said. Those attitudes persist even as the county’s deaths attributed to COVID-19 went from zero to 10 in less than two weeks.    

“It was definitely a different level of disrespect and refusal to comply,” Weideman said of recent interactions with people. “When we do contact tracing, there are so many people not cooperating with us, not returning calls and telling us whether they have symptoms. It’s been unbelievable. I didn’t think we would get to this point.”    

 Final lesson

Jasper hadn’t seen Bowe since the coronavirus pandemic surfaced in Wisconsin in March, and she looked forward to catching up with him over a beer on her deck at her home northeast of Chippewa Falls once the pandemic subsides. 

“Now that meeting isn’t going to happen,” Jasper said. “Now there will be an empty seat when our group of retirees gets together.”

When Behling experienced emotional downturns during her years at Chippewa Falls High School, she knew she had a confidant in Bowe. His mix of cynical optimism was a good match for her, she said. 

“He let me know it was okay to be upset at the world sometimes,” said Behling, who is now a junior at UW-Madison. 

Each year Bowe put on book drives with his National English Honor Society students so incarcerated parents could record themselves reading a book as a Christmas present to their children. Bowe wrote letters of recommendation for Behling when she applied to colleges. After she graduated they kept in touch, and during the past summer they discussed racial injustice in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

Behling was attending an online course when she learned Bowe was going to die. Tears filled her eyes. She recalled his support of her effort to fight on behalf of marginalized communities at her high school. 

“He told me to be persistent, that I need to keep pushing for that,” Behling said. “That’s what I’m going to do. It’s what Mr. Bowe would want.”

While Behling remains frustrated at the continued ignoring by many of measures to curb COVID-19, Bowe’s death may be raising awareness of the dangers of that approach, she said. A homecoming event for high school seniors scheduled for Saturday was cancelled because of concerns about COVID-19. Behling said she heard her former teacher’s name mentioned related to that action.

“If Mr. Bowe’s death can prevent people gathering, and more people getting the virus, that’s one last lesson he can leave with all of us,” she said.