Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Bill Bowes – a Class Act

February 10th, 2017
San Francisco

I just got back from a week in my hometown San Francisco where I went to attend the memorial service of my uncle Bill Bowes (1926-2016), otherwise known as William Ketchum Bowes Jr.

I’ve always loved the Junior part because my 90 year-old  uncle was anything but little. At 6’4″ he towered over me and my two sisters Diana and Alexandra.


I think he kept the junior in deference to his father, my grandfather. This was typical of Bill, modest and respectful to the end.

While memorial services are invariably sad, I was inspired by the tributes paid to my uncle. He was a man with a big impact and a low profile, a humble person graced with  good old-fashioned values of service and kindness.

Bill was my late father John’s older brother by two years. (Bill with my father below. Bill is on the right in the first image and on the left in the second)


Scan 1

Bill was a great man by any measure. A hugely successful venture capitalist and pioneer, Bill was Amgen’s founding shareholder in 1980, its first chairman and treasurer, and most of all, said the $124 billion biopharmaceutical company in a letter when my uncle died,

(Bill) was a visionary whose idea it was to launch the biotech company that would become Amgen. Without Bowes, there would be no Amgen.”

Amgen makes  serious drugs for the sickest of patients. One drug Neupogen fights infection in patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy, another deals with severe arthritis, another osteoporosis. Below is a statue of my uncle outside Amgen’s California headquarters.


Bill spent much of his time in his later years giving money away, quietly, thoughtfully and generously via what he called “my little foundation”, otherwise known as the The William K Bowes Jr Foundation, a $400mm philanthropic organisation largely run by the one-man band that was my uncle. Up until a few months ago Bill worked five days a week,  largely reading grant submissions.

Giving money away is harder than making it, Bill said. He wanted to give where he could make a difference.

His main focuses were medical research (UCSF amongst other places), education,  religious harmony (United Religions Initiative) and music. Here is a tribute to Bill produced by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In the tribute, Bill says:

Music is pretty fundamental. It’s good for the soul and anything I can do to push that along is just as good as science to me. (The conservatory) takes young people and develops them. It’s venture capital in a different sense.”

At the service I was struck most by  how modest my uncle remained throughout his life. Always a quiet man, (I would usually ramble nervously when I visited him, unaccustomed to the silence. He would interject softly with a succinct, wise word or phrase)


Bill avoided the spotlight. Often he didn’t attend awards ceremonies where he was being honoured, and yet he always made time for family. Whenever I’d visit SF, my uncle would invariably ask,

When are we going to see you?

Family mattered, helping others mattered, treating people with respect mattered, being in the spotlight did not.

Bill had a small office consisting of one long-time assistant who had worked for him for over thirty years. He surprised callers by frequently answering his own phone, or greeting guests at the main front door to his office complex. His  favourite lunchtime meal was the split pea soup from  SF Soup or the street tacos at Rubio’s. Nothing fancy.

I visited his office earlier this week. Upon hearing my surname, the security man  in the lobby of the skyscraper where my uncle worked offered his condolences.

Your uncle was a kind man. Every day that he came in he greeted me with a handshake and a ‘Good Morning John’.

I immediately shook John’s hand and vowed to take time to say hi and smile at those people in my neighbourhood who I see every day.

The stories of my uncle’s impeccable values flooded the service. When he and my father were flying back to Harvard Business School in the 1950’s their prop plane crashed in a field and caught fire. Bill calmly stayed on board until all the other passengers had safely disembarked.

Ute, Bill’s beloved wife of fifty-plus years,  has a restaurant called Ferry Plaza Seafood. Whenever Bill visited he waited patiently at the back of the line to order his lunch. Jumping the queue was not part of his vocabulary. (Ute and my sister Diana below)


Bill and Ute had no household staff. The only man I saw working in their apartment was a masseur who had been jobless on the streets until my aunt and uncle persuaded him to get a job. He did. He trained as a masseur and then had a weekly slot at their apartment on Russian Hill.

William Ketchum Bowes Jr was a giant among men. He will be greatly missed.


February 2017