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Oldest Known Freshman to Serve in the House

July 07, 1953
Oldest Known Freshman to Serve in the House Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Representative James Bowler of Illinois was a professional bicyclist before winning his first election to the House at the age of 78.
On this date, after winning a special election at the age of 78, James B. Bowler of Illinois became the oldest known freshman Member to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. He surpassed his freshman colleague Dr. William Neal of West Virginia, 77, who had held the title for the previous seven months. Born in Chicago, Illinois, on February 5, 1875, Bowler spent his youth as a professional bicyclist. He served on the Chicago city council from 1906–1923, before becoming the city’s commissioner of compensation. He again served on the city council from 1928–1953 when, on July 7, he won the special election as a Democrat to the U.S. House to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Adolph J. Sabath of Illinois. On Capitol Hill, Bowler moved into room 408 in what is today the Cannon House Office Building, just down the hall from fellow septuagenarian Dr. William Neal in room 438. Neal, who was also born in 1875, had been elected to the House several months earlier during the 1952 general election. Neal earned a medical degree in 1906 from the University of Cincinnati and spent 45 years working as a physician. He served as mayor of Huntington, West Virginia, in the 1920s and as a member of the state house of delegates from 1951–1952. Other than their age and office location, however, Bowler and Neal shared little in common. Bowler won re-election to both the 84th and 85th Congresses (1955–1959), serving on the Committee on Education and Labor, before joining the Appropriations Committee. Crippled by arthritis, he died seven months later on July 18, 1957. “Mr. Bowler came here late in life,” said Carl Albert of Oklahoma, “but he brought with him a freshness that few Members, many years his junior, bring with them. Mr. Bowler never seemed to me to be an old man.” Neal, for his part, was the only Republican from West Virginia, and lost re-election to the 84th Congress (1955–1957), before running again and winning a seat in the 85th Congress (1957–1959). In 1958, he lost in his attempt for a third term. Neal died the next year at the age of 84. “His mind was always open to ideas and new avenues of progress for America,” said Representative William Lee Springer. “I have never known a man more sincere in what he believed was good for his country.”

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