By Ann Lovell
RICHMOND, Virginia—Franklin and Dorcas Fowler had been married 70 years when Dorcas died peacefully June 26, 2017, in her home at Lakewood, a LifeSpire of Virginia community in Richmond’s West End. She was 96. Just before Franklin’s 100th birthday in March, the couple was asked how long they’d been married. They exchanged a puzzled glance and then laughed.
“We don’t remember!” Dorcas said. “Forever.”
In that same conversation, Franklin reached for his Bible, opened the front cover, and pulled out a photo of Dorcas as a young woman. He didn’t say much, but his message was clear. His God and his wife are his two most important relationships.
The Fowlers epitomize lives of faithfulness. From childhood, both sought to share God’s love through medicine. Franklin grew up as the child of missionary parents in Argentina, and committed his life to Christ at age 10. After college at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee, he went on to Vanderbilt Medical School in Nashville, where, thanks to the start of World War II, he and his class earned their medical degrees a few months earlier than planned. Franklin served in combat in France, Luxembourg, and Germany as a doctor with the 110th Evacuation Hospital, semi-mobile. He returned from the war and married Dorcas, a registered nurse, on Aug. 25, 1946.
Dorcas was born in Oklahoma City and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri; a nursing degree from St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri; and a Master of Arts degree from The Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia.
In 1947, the couple was appointed to Paraguay as medical missionaries with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). Their task was to build a hospital. Two years later, after surveying the needs, deciding on a location, and purchasing property, Dr. Fowler sent a cable to the FMB: “HOW DO YOU BUILD A HOSPITAL?” He soon received a simple reply from Dr. Everett Gill, FMB’s area secretary for the Americas: “WE ARE PRAYING FOR YOU.”
Looking back on his 100 years, Dr. Fowler credits the hospital in Paraguay as one of his greatest accomplishments. He has reason to be proud. Today, the Baptist Medical Center in Asunción treats about 16,000 patients a month. Under Paraguayan leadership, the hospital has a reputation for excellent medical care and fair business dealings. In 1995, the Baptist Medical Center expanded to include a heart institute, and the next year, doctors there performed Paraguay’s first successful heart transplant.
The Fowlers left Paraguay in 1956 to accept an assignment in Mexico, and in 1960, the family moved to Richmond where Dr. Fowler served as the FMB’s first medical consultant on the home office staff and Dorcas worked as director of the nursing school at Johnston-Willis Hospital until it closed. During his tenure in FMB’s home office, Dr. Fowler focused on missionary health and started the Baptist Medical/Dental Fellowship, which remains active today.
The Fowlers moved to Lakewood in 1987, where they quickly became active in the community. They started a worship service for healthcare residents, and Dr. Fowler continued to write and paint, chronicling his life in “From There to Here: The Story of a Missionary Child.” The missionary life is mobile, and ironically, the Fowlers have lived in retirement at Lakewood for 30 years — longer than anywhere else in their storied and very active lives.
“I can’t imagine Lakewood without the Fowlers,” said Eileen Kwak, the community’s director of resident services. “They are an icon here.”
The Fowlers represent a generation of people who understand the meaning of words like faithfulness, loyalty, commitment, and community — values on which LifeSpire communities are built and continue to thrive. Even at the end of her life, Dorcas faithfully cared for Franklin, Kwak said. As Dorcas’ life ebbed away, Franklin sat quietly, holding her hand.
Franklin and Dorcas also believed they could make a difference in the world for the cause of Christ, and they were willing to endure any hardship to do so. Franklin’s autobiography tells of their first trip to Paraguay by boat when Dorcas was eight months pregnant with their oldest child.
“This proved to be a bad time for Dorcas to travel,” Franklin wrote in “From There to Here.” “Eight months pregnant, the rolling of the ship kept her in her bunk most of the way. I’m afraid this was not a pleasant Caribbean and South American cruise for her.”
A few weeks later, she delivered their oldest son in a clinic in Asunción, Paraguay — without anesthesia.
“I asked Dr. Aguire later why he did not use anesthesia,” Franklin wrote. “He said that if he lost a Paraguayan patient, it would be considered the will of God, but if he lost an American patient or the baby, his reputation would be ruined, thus he took no risks. Dorcas wished he had taken a little more risk!”
In spite of the difficulties, the Fowlers laid the foundation for international missions — medical and otherwise — for generations to follow. Southern Baptist missions efforts today rest on the shoulders of men and women like Franklin and Dorcas Fowler. More importantly, in a world shaken by brokenness, turmoil, and violence, their lives are steadfast examples of genuine love and faithfulness.
In honor of Dr. Fowler’s 100th birthday and the couple’s strong legacy of faith, LifeSpire of Virginia is pleased to publish his autobiography, “From There to Here: The Story of a Missionary Child,” including the history of Southern Baptist medical missions, which he wrote in 1975, and a collection of poems and paintings, which he created during his years at Lakewood.
Proceeds from the sale of the book benefit LifeSpire’s VBH Foundation, which raises funds to help LifeSpire’s life care residents who outlive their financial resources remain in their homes. The book is available for $14.99 on Amazon and from the VBH Foundation. Contact Ann Lovell for more information.
Ann Lovell is Corporate Director of Communications for LifeSpire of Virginia, formerly Virginia Baptist Homes. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (804) 521-9192.
LifeSpire of Virginia operates four continuing care retirement communities in Virginia: The Chesapeake in Newport News, The Culpeper in Culpeper, The Glebe in Daleville and Lakewood in Richmond.