Saturday, 02 Dec 2023

Longtime Smithtown highway chief James Dowling dies at 99

Longtime Smithtown highway chief James Dowling dies at 99

Long Island (Writer)-James Dowling was shot down over Germany during World War II and held prisoner for eight months before he was freed near the war's end.

Then, like countless other people of his era, Dowling came home and built America's new suburbs.

Dowling, who lived most of his life in St. James, paved and plowed hundreds of miles of roads as Smithtown's highway chief for nearly four decades. He became a local legend for his war exploits and for helping found what is now the Smithtown Little League.

He came to symbolize the seemingly boundless spirit of many people who lived through the Depression and the war — so much so that he was profiled in Tom Brokaw's 1998 bestseller, "The Greatest Generation."

Dowling died May 26 from congestive heart failure in Good Shepherd Hospice at Mercy Hospital in Rockville Centre, his daughter, Jean Dowling, said. He was 99.

"We lost one of the greatest individuals in Smithtown history," Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said in a statement. "Jim 'Red' Dowling left his mark on the world in ways that will echo throughout future generations in the most prolific ways."

Dowling, known as "Red" for the crimson hair he sported in his younger years, was born in Manhattan, orphaned as an infant and raised by a Nesconset family, Jean Dowling said.

He was drafted in 1943 and assigned to the 703rd Squadron, 445th Bomb Group in the 8th Army Air Corps, where he served as a bombardier/navigator and rose to the rank of second lieutenant.

During a bombing campaign over Kassel, Germany, on Sept. 27, 1944, Dowling's B-24 bomber was shot down and he parachuted to the ground, where he was taken prisoner by German troops.

He was held at a prisoner of war camp near Barth, Germany, until May 1945, when Russian troops liberated the camp, Brokaw's book said.

He told Brokaw he returned to Long Island determined to make a difference.

"I didn't take life for granted," he told the former NBC News anchorman. "The most memorable lesson I learned in the war is that life is precious."

Dowling married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy, with whom he had eight children. She died in 2011.

Dowling started construction and seafood businesses, hauling clams to Fulton Fish Market and elsewhere. In 1960, a friend suggested he run for highway superintendent, and he won.

Never having built a road, Dowling fell back on lessons he learned in the military — how to organize people and simplify tasks. He is credited with developing a system for recycling asphalt and for snowplowing techniques that became a model throughout the state. He left the post in 1998 and the town highway department headquarters now bears his name.

He loved golf and gin rummy, and restoring Model A Fords, which he drove in the town's Memorial Day parades.

Jean Dowling, of St. James, said her dad was "fabulous fun," recalling the parades and annual Easter egg hunts.

“He was so enthused about life. There was never a day he didn’t celebrate with us," she said. "He always saw good in people, always, and that was a great personality [trait], to always forgive people.”

In addition to Jean, Dowling is survived by two other daughters, Janet Weingarten of Naples, Florida, and Elizabeth Elderkin of St. James; five sons, James Jr. of Vero Beach, Florida, Douglas of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and Jeffrey, Gregory and William, all of St. James; 25 grandchildren, 33 great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild.

A funeral Mass was celebrated Tuesday at Sts. Philip & James Roman Catholic Church in St. James. Dowling was buried later that day at Smithtown Landing Cemetery.

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