The Virtual Celebration of Life for
from Saturday, January 23, 2021
12:30 p.m. Pacific Time
A Biography of Dr. W. Thomas Sowder Jr.
By Amy Sowder van Erk
Dr. Wilson Thomas Sowder Jr., or Tom, as many called him, was a bear of a man. In fact, his late wife, Zoraida, affectionately called him “oso,” the Spanish word for bear. Born April 3, 1937, at Marine Hospital in Seattle, Washington, Tom was the beloved first child of Wilson T. Sowder Sr. and Lucille Marguerite Leslie. His mother reached Seattle via a Canadian ship from Juneau, Alaska, where his father was stationed with the U.S. Coast Guard as a U.S. Public Health Service medical officer. Medical services were very limited in Alaska at that time.
Tom's early years were spent in several of his father’s assigned locations: Nashville, Tennessee; Pensacola, Florida; Jacksonville, Florida; Washington, D.C.; Dallas, Texas; and then toward the end of World War II, the family returned to and settled in Jacksonville. Called “Tommy” Sowder until he went to college, he was a big brother to Martha Jane Sowder Palmer and James “Jim” Leslie Sowder. “He was a wonderful big brother,” Jane said. “He always seemed a fount of wisdom and knowledge, and he helped us learn much about life and the wider world. Our parents might not have appreciated some of the things he taught us, like how to find, unwrap and rewrap carefully-hidden Christmas gifts or how to ‘sample’ liquor and refill it with water so it wasn't noticed, but we loved learning from him. I cannot imagine a better big brother! He was loved. He is missed.”
Tom grew up a bright, multi-faceted, friendly and happy child, with the curiosity and ability to do anything he set his mind to do, his sister said. He loved chemistry, carving, jokes, magic tricks, piano, basketball and cooking. He was a ham radio operator, who built many sets before going into TV sets, Erector sets, Monopoly, card games and jigsaw puzzles. He could build anything and enjoyed Boy Scouts, camping, acolyting at church, woodworking and computer technology. Tom spent several summers with relatives in Virginia, learning about family farming and having fun with cousins. He grew up in a very well-educated family where higher learning was expected and a lifelong endeavour.
Tom completed his early schooling in Jacksonville, graduating from the Julia Landon High School in 1955. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Virginia, his father's alma mater, in 1959 with a major in Spanish and Pre-Medicine. He discovered the Spanish language through high school studies and early trips to pre-Castro Cuba and Mexico, a passion and skill that proved useful in his medical practice and later family life. Tom knew several languages to different extents, including German. He loved cats.
To continue his education, Tom returned to Florida to study at the fairly new University of Florida School of Medicine. He spent one summer term in New Orleans attending Tulane and graduated from the University of Florida with his M.D. in 1962. After interning at Baltimore Memorial Hospital in Maryland, he fulfilled his military service, deferred while he was in college and medical school, with the U.S. Public Health Service. He served as a prison doctor in a federal women's penitentiary in Alderson, West Virginia. Then Tom fulfilled a three-year residency in psychiatry at the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.
While there, he met Carol Ann Shockley, a registered nurse working at the same hospital. They married August 10, 1968, at a little church in Carol’s hometown of Snow Hill, Maryland, with a reception in the backyard two houses down the road. The newlyweds settled in Plantation, Florida, near Henderson Clinic, now called Henderson Behavioral Health, in Fort Lauderdale, where he practiced psychiatry from 1969 through 2012 — for 43 years. An outpatient psychiatrist, Tom was well known at the central branch and had more longevity at the clinic than almost everyone, said Mayra Reimer, Henderson’s director of community support, who worked directly with Tom.
“Dr. Sowder had a calm demeanor and witty sense of humor. He maintained a good professional relationship with his peers and would sometimes speak Spanish to those who wanted to chat in Spanish,” Reimer said. “His tall and robust stature could not be missed as he was a gentle giant. His dedication to his clients was clear. He loved what he did and devoted his time to his career.”
Meanwhile, Tom and Carol were delighted to welcome their three children: John Riley Sowder, Paul Leslie Sowder and Amy Elizabeth (Sowder) van Erk. He loved reading “Where the Wild Things Are” to his children when they were little, and sang “The Bear Went Over The Mountain,” like his father did. He called his middle child Paul-Pooh, after the Winnie the Pooh bear folktales.
Tom’s love of building projects turned toward the family home, creating a fireplace, mantle and cabinet system, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, fireworks, what he called a “jungle gym” with two levels and swings for the children in the backyard — and even a sailboat. When he cooked or baked, he did it big: He made not one, but half a dozen very long loaves of bread. He didn’t make a bowl of cranberry sauce — he made enough to fill half a freezer. He instituted “BLT” Sundays for the classic bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. He loved ice cream, especially butter pecan, which he would eat in a serving bowl. Tom was always reading, learning, teaching or working on projects. His accountant called him a “unique character,” a funny and witty guy the last 30 or so years they worked together.
After more than 20 years, the marriage with Carol ended with divorce in 1991. Tom then married Liliana Moreno Morales, which lasted about a year before they divorced. Then he met Zoraida Vivas-Gamboa (Zoraida Vivas Sowder) while visiting Cali, Colombia. They married June 27, 1994, and built a life together at their Fort Lauderdale home, which soon included Zoraida’s children, Tatiana and Henry. They were married until Zoraida passed away on March 7, 2011.
Tom then spent more time going back and forth between Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Cali, Colombia, working with his brothers-in-law, Mario and Jorge, on construction projects. He was most proud of the three-story residence that he built from the ground up, stepdaughter Tatiana said. Tom was really excited to be part of these construction projects, designing them and even building his own architectural models based on multi-family homes in low-income neighborhoods. “He used to say that low-income families deserved to live in nice houses too,” Tatiana said. Tom made ice cream for himself and Viviana Garcia (Direici Bibiana García Loaíza), his final companion and assistant during his Colombia visits, as well as her children, she said.
He continued to enjoy cooking, baking, beer-brewing, Coca-Cola, research and conspiracy theories.
After being a son, brother, husband, father, uncle, doctor, builder and companion, Tom became a proud grandfather in the fall of 2019, when his first grandson, Elliott Sowder van Erk, was born.
Tom told and wrote jokes to family members, and he was always interested in collaborating on projects. He was a student, teacher and bear of a man to the end.