The 75-year-old grew up in the Valley and has been blind since he was 12.
STORY | MATT D’ANGELO
PHOTO | JAMES ALLEN
Dan Bowman hunches over his table saw and mindfully places his fingers near the wood, his face is soft but his plastic eyes look off into the distance as his hands work. Then, motivated by the loud clunk of a starter switch, the table saw is running — Bowman is ready to do his cutting and he can’t even see where the blade is.
“This is deadly dangerous,” Bowman says. “I know right where that saw blade is going to go … I don’t dare shift [my] hand.”
Bowman, 75, grew up on a farm outside of Harrisonburg and has been blind since he was 12 years old, but that hasn’t stopped him. He learned how to woodwork when he was a boy, staying in during recess to play with the various hand tools the school provided.
He’s come a long way since those days.
He’s built a multitude of items, including toy blocks, a desk, quilt racks, chairs, marble rollers, a model mill, a table for raising orchids, Victorian washstands and a shed.
Woodworking “is very mindful,” Bowman says. “You better think, or you’ll wish you had.”
Bowman’s blindness is a result of a disease called extreme myopia, which can cause retina detachment during the onset of puberty. Despite this challenge, Bowman has enjoyed a long career as a specialized piano tuner, and has also excelled as a student, father of three and craftsman.
“Everything I do,” Bowman says, “I work out the details … in my head.”
He graduated from Eastern Mennonite College in 1965 (now EMU) and Richmond Professional Institute (now VCU) in 1968, where he learned vocational rehab counseling, a specialized form of social work. After school he moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1977 and was a social worker.
After a few years in Harrisburg, he decided to move back to Harrisonburg with his family. It was during this time that he set up a shop in his garage, and continued crafting items for his friends and family.
Bowman’s shop is damp and cool — it smells like something between heavy varnish and a forest, and it isn’t uncommon to find sawdust flakes floating around the tables and scraps of wood. He has a saw table, a rotary table, a drill press, a belt sander, measuring devices and even homemade “saw slides,” which he uses as guides when using the table saw.
In the back of his workshop, under a worktable, is a small cabinet that his father made for him.
“That’s very, very old,” Bowman says. “So, a couple years ago, I decided to make the boys [his grandsons] each one of those cabinets.”
Bowman draws his inspiration from his family, and often makes toys for his grandchildren and pieces of furniture for his wife Ferne. While Bowman learned to woodwork when he was a child, he got back into it when Ferne gave him her blessing.
“My wife caught on that I could make nice things for her,” Bowman says. “So she blessed the idea from the get-go.”
Bowman met Ferne in the cafeteria back when they were both students at EMC. It was easy to tell that their story was one they had told together thousands of times.
“I heard this girl,” Bowman says, “This girl across the table from me laughed at something I said and I liked the way she laughed.”
Ferne jumped in.
“You would ask your friends about the girls,” Ferne says.
“What they looked like,” Bowman finishes, as they both laugh softly to one another.
Most of what Bowman makes, he makes a duplicate and offers it to the Virginia
Mennonite Relief sale, where they’re auctioned off for sometimes thousands of dollars. The sale, which is held on the first Saturday of October, is a charity fundraiser for the Mennonite Central Committee, which donates the money to refugee resettlement agencies in the area.
Joy Coakley, a co-chair for the relief sale’s auction committee, said that the sale raised close to $400,000 earlier this year, and that Bowman’s contributions are anticipated by many returning donors from year to year.
“Dan’s items are always of superior quality,” Coakley says in an email. “He puts great care in whatever piece he donates … many folks want to know what he will be donating each year.”
For Bowman, he’s happy to donate to the relief sale if it means helping the MCC.
Despite the creations in his workshop, his knack for building has extended into the backyard of the house he’s lived in for almost 40 years.
Bowman made the picnic table, but he also did all of the excavating and measurements necessary to install a concrete patio, an endeavor he and his three daughters wouldn’t forget.
Bowman continues to add to his long list of finished products. Right now, he’s working on a small model grist mill for Ferne, a project, like many others, which began with visualization.
“A blind man is forever waiting on somebody,” Bowman says chuckling. “Waiting on a bus, waiting on a cab, waiting on some driver to come by and pick you up … I began to occupy myself with working out the details for the gears, the ratios, for a model of a mill.