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Howie McCormick/The Herald-Dispatch Point Pleasant River Museum executive director Jack Fowler stands over a copy of the front page of the Herald-Dispatch from December 18, 1967, three days following the collapse of the Silver Bridge. The headline on the page read "Known Bridge Deaths Reach 13". Those were the only 13 confirmed deaths at the time, but the number would eventually reach 46. Fowler says that several new photographs have recently been added to the collection on display at the museum.

Many people in Point Pleasant are looking forward to the opening of the new river museum next year, but it won’t be the same without Jack Fowler helping cut the ribbon.

Fowler, 85, had been executive director of the Point Pleasant River Museum and Learning Center since 1999. He was the only person local officials could recall as having served in that position.

Fowler passed away Monday evening at the Emogene Dolin Jones Hospice House in Huntington after several weeks of declining health. It was just what could be a few weeks away from the groundbreaking ceremony for the new museum building that would replace the one heavily damaged by fire on July 1, 2018.

“It’s going to be hard,” Point Pleasant Mayor Brian Billings said this week. “Our prayer was that he could be the first to open that door. Now he’s not.”

Given its location and the amount of activity that comes with it, Paducah, Kentucky, is the city whose economy is linked most closely to the Ohio River. The Point Pleasant area, which would include repair facilities across the river in Gallipolis, Ohio, is probably second. That’s why it was important in the 1990s for Point Pleasant to have a museum honoring its river heritage. Early on, Fowler was a leader in that effort.

Fowler was well-known in the Point Pleasant and Gallipolis area before the museum opened. He was an accomplished athlete in high school and later officiated games. He started his career as a pipefitter before moving on to other jobs at several companies. He served 16 years on the Point Pleasant City Council and held economic development positions on both sides of the Ohio River until 1999.

That was when he took over planning work and the daily operation of the museum, which opened to the public in 2003.

Fowler saw to it that artifacts and photographs were collected, and that two towboat pilot simulators — one sophisticated enough for government-approved pilot training programs — were added, along with classes that enabled pilots to retain their radar certifications.

Fowler, the museum’s other two employees — Ruth and Martha Fout — and volunteers and donors kept the museum going until the fire.

Billings recalled Fowler’s dedication to tracking down material for the museum, even if it was on the other side of Ohio.

“Wherever he heard somebody had something to do with the river, his eyes and his ears were pointed in that direction,” Billings said.

Since the fire, museum employees and its former exhibits have been housed in a small building downtown. Now the task is the museum’s future. The museum has a governing board for the operation of the museum, but the old building was owned by the city. The new one will be, too.

Last month, the Point Pleasant City Council hired The Thrasher Group to design and build the new museum. The total project cost will be about $2 million.

The hope is to have the new building open in time for the annual Tribute to the River festival, normally held on Labor Day weekend at the city’s riverfront park.

Billings ordered that flags in Point Pleasant be flown at half staff through the weekend in Fowler’s honor. Longer term, something at the new museum will be needed bearing Fowler’s name and likeness, he said.

Mason County Commissioner Rick Handley said, “Without him, the river museum would not be what it is today. We all know he’ll be here in spirit with us sometime soon when we break ground and open the doors.”

Jim Ross is development and opinion editor of The Herald-Dispatch. He has photographed and written about river-related topics for more than 45 years. His email is jross@hdmediallc.com.

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