Carol Sowers often went to great lengths to get to the heart of a story.
Once during her more than 30-year career with the Arizona Republic, she was assigned to cover floods that occurred in the valley after a heavy monsoon. Dressed in a yellow linen outfit, she stopped at a Yellow Front discount store en route to buy a pair of rubber thigh-high boots.
“She wanted so much to be in the heart of the matter,” recalls her daughter, Andi Fourlis, who accompanied her that day.
“I’m sitting in the car, probably having a snack, but I just remember the contrast between that yellow linen suit and my mom in rubber pants like a fisherman and armpit-length boots, and I I was like, ‘What is she doing,'” Fourlis said with a laugh.
Sowers was among the first women at The Republic to tap into the news, covering a variety of topics as an investigative reporter, columnist and editor. She was revered as a trailblazer for paving the way for hundreds of women to follow in her footsteps.
Sowers Jan. 20 died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 75 years old.
“She embraced life with the accelerator pedal at full throttle”
Sowers was born in Seattle as the youngest of three daughters. Her family moved to the Valley, where Sowers later graduated from Cortez High School in North Phoenix.
“Funny enough, she named them the Cortez Colts,” Fourlis said. “She was part of Cortez’s first four-year class and she got to name them the Colts because she was a member of the newspaper.”
Sowers attended Northern Arizona University, which at the time was called Arizona State College. She worked for the student newspaper, The Lumberjack, and in 1967 graduated with a degree in journalism.
Over the next few years, Sowers had two children, Fourlis and her deceased son, John Sowers, whom she raised as a single mother. John was a veterinarian before his death in 2007 and Fourlis is the superintendent of Mesa Public Schools.
“Growing up with my mom was 100% exciting all the time,” Fourlis said. “She embraced life with the accelerator pedal at full throttle, and she lifted us up the same way, and created so many opportunities and so many experiences for us.”
Besides her children and her career, Sowers was passionate about fitness. She participated in triathlons and cycled and ran long distances. She has also hiked, done yoga, and been part of a rowing team in Tempe.
Sowers loved being a grandmother of five and never missed dance recitals, volleyball tournaments, baseball games and cheering competitions. She had a tradition each year of writing and directing a play featuring her grandchildren. The practice would start around Halloween and the play would start on Thanksgiving Day.
“Costumes and scripts, you name it,” Fourlis said with a laugh. “She wasn’t the best cook in the world, and she would tell you that, and she would always say, ‘It takes me away from cooking and I’m doing something I love.'”
“We stand on his shoulders”
The sowers worked for a short time at the Casa Grande Dispatch and then at the Mesa Tribune.
She then worked for The Republic in 1974, at a time when newsrooms were full of reporters, phones ringing and typewriters banging. It was also a time when newsrooms were dominated by men, and women were often tasked with covering softer news for the women’s section of the newspaper.
Sowers was the deputy editor of the Republic Women’s Forum and the first of the group to cover and write a regular column on the Arizona legislature. During this time, she worked in the same office and shared a phone with Don Bolles. When he died after a car bomb on June 2, 1976, she was devastated, Fourlis said.
Sowers eventually left the women’s section to cover a wider range of topics.
“I got into journalism in the mid-70s and women weren’t really in newsrooms; if you were a woman in journalism, you were in the reporting section, you were doing some kind of soft news “said Karen Fernau, a journalist who worked at the Phoenix Gazette and The Republic for 37 years.
“But Carol broke into that newsroom,” Fernau continued. “I mean, we lean on her shoulders, she opened the door for a whole generation of women who wanted to be top journalists.”
The March 7, 1978, issue of the Republic appears to include Sowers’ first front-page story featuring Harriet Babbitt in her new role as first lady of the state. A few days earlier, Harriet’s husband, Bruce Babbitt, had been named governor following the sudden death of Arizona’s 15th governor, Wesley Bolin.
The sowers went on to cover various crimes and news stories, among others. Susan Leonard, who worked with Sowers on the women’s section and then alongside her on tough reporting for a total of 20 years, said Sowers enjoyed being a general reporter.
“She liked the variety you could get with the general assignment stories and she liked that the general assignment stories were often the biggest stories of the day,” Leonard said.
In 1987, Sowers traveled the country to cover Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United States, which included a stop in Tempe.
“She was a very good reporter, she was street smart and she did a great job of communicating with people,” said Michael Ging, who was a photographer at The Republic for 35 years and often worked alongside of Sowers, including on his mission as pope.
Ging said Sowers had a natural ability to connect with people, recalling a time when they met a group that chose to live in solitude.
“Everyone came out with guns and one of the guys fired a gun in the air,” Ging said. “So we raised our hands, talked to them and before the night was over, Carol had talked to them about making us dinner and we were playing with their kids.”
The sowers have often mentored and offered their support to young journalists, many of whom now run La République.
“She always knew when something was wrong. I listened to her words, watched her infectious smile, and knew she was right when she said everything was going to be okay,” Republic reporter Karina Bland said. “She would even show up at your house, with a meal, a book or a small gift, just when you needed it.”
Life changed after son’s death from Alzheimer’s diagnosis
Semeurs’ life took a turn when her son died suddenly at the age of 35, according to Fourlis. Sowers was with him at the time and attempted to revive him, Fourlis said.
“My brother and I were the loves of my mother’s life,” Fourlis said. “Of all the interviews she did, of all the people she spoke to who captured her heart through their misfortune and the horrible things that happened, my brother’s death changed my mother for the rest of his life.”
Sowers retired from The Republic in 2008, about a year after her son’s death. A few years later, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“My mom did everything you’re supposed to do to live a long, healthy, vibrant life full of memories; she was an amazing athlete, she was a reader, she was a writer…and to think that ‘She had Alzheimer’s didn’t make sense until the doctor told me it was trauma-induced memory loss and a broken heart,’ Fourlis said.
People with PTSD may be more likely to develop dementia, but the link is not yet fully understood.
“Mother Nature came in and swept away those terrible, terrible feelings and hurtful memories of losing my brother and sadly took a lot of other things,” Fourlis continued.
Sowers participated in research studies for the last seven years of her life and was eventually transferred to a memory care home, Fourlis said. Leonard stayed in touch with Sowers and visited regularly until the COVID-19 pandemic made travel difficult.
“I am very sad that Carol passed away, but I am happy for her that she is no longer in pain, and it is comforting to know that she is with her son again,” Leonard said.
The Sowers’ Celebration of Life will be held Friday at 10 a.m. at the Shadow Mountain Mortuary. In-person attendance is limited to those with invitations due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the ceremony will be streamed live via Shadow Mountain Mortuary Facebook page.
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