1600 Grand Ave
St. Paul MN 55105
2006 Honorary Degree Recipient
You grew up in the river city of St. Paul, a descendant of a Pennsylvania steamboat captain, which surely had something to do with your future career. You were 20 when you volunteered for the Army following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Trained as a paratrooper, you jumped into Normandy on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge — of the war’s most decisive campaigns. Wounded in action, you came home with four Battle Stars, the Combat Infantry Badge, three French Croix de Guerres, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
You enrolled at Macalester, where you met your future wife, Lillian Flatten Bowell, Class of 1949. You majored in economics and communication studies, served as president of the Young Republicans Club, joined the 1948—49 conference championship wrestling team, and served as photo editor of the yearbook. You also honed your entrepreneurial skills by working as a free-lance photographer and selling popcorn at Macalester football games. After Macalester you worked as a Chicago account executive, developing trade publications for the likes of Holiday Inn, Oldsmobile, Greyhound and United Airlines. As an entrepreneur, you created a national catalog for discount merchandisers and made promotional products for such corporate giants as Dairy Queen and Northwest Airlines.
In 1970, you launched your excursion boat business on a nearly deserted Harriet Island in downtown St. Paul. The Padelford Packet Boat Company soon became a success and helped transform the riverfront. Because of your vision and determination, thousands of Twin Citians rediscovered the beauty and cultural heritage of the Mississippi. St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Don Boxmeyer noted that the Jonathan Padelford — named for your 10th great-grandfather — is the most famous of 21 barges, restaurants, showboats, stern-wheel and side-wheel excursion craft, towboats, tugboats and runabouts that you introduced to the Mississippi. "St. Paul’s renaissance began with Bill’s drive to make it happen," said U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul. Harriet Island now enjoys new life as a regional park and hosts the University of Minnesota’s new Centennial Showboat, which you helped build. Paul A. Verret, president emeritus of the St. Paul Foundation, wrote: "Bill’s love for the Mississippi River is renowned, both locally and nationally. He has been vitally instrumental in reshaping St. Paul’s downtown riverfront over the past 30 years."
Among your many achievements, you are the founder of the Passenger Vessel Association and the winner of the National Rivers Hall of Fame Achievement Award. The Captain William Bowell River Library, containing your collection of books, paintings and other artifacts, opened in 2004 at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa. The business and its excursion boats now belong to your children and nephew. But you will always be thought of as — to quote the title of your recently published memoir — Ol’ Man River.
For all these reasons, Macalester College is proud to bestow upon you the Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.