Born June 22, 1906 in Vineyard, Arkansas, Winnie Hopkins Bowker’s birthday usually coincided with Chi Omega Conventions. Because decades-worth of birthdays were spent at Convention, delegates made it a tradition to throw a party for her while they were together each biennium. Winnie was often celebrated in this way because there was so much about this purposeful Sister to celebrate.
One of these traits that we still celebrate today was Winnie’s ability to bridge our earliest days of Chi Omega to the growingly modern days she saw during her time as S.H. She knew Founders Jobelle Holcombe and Dr. Charles Richardson and longtime Eleusis editor Christelle Ferguson, Psi/Arkansas, personally and carried pieces of their leadership and dream for the Fraternity with her. She was also the S.H. that transitioned Chi Omega out of a 42-year term that her predecessor Mary Love Collins, Delta/Dickinson, served before her. From her small town in Arkansas, to modernizing the National Fraternity, Winnie Hopkins Bowker was certainly a Sister worth celebrating.
Life at Psi Chapter
While at the University of Arkansas, Winnie was initiated into Psi Chapter in 1925 and would go on to serve two dedicated years as chapter G.H. in 1926 and 1927.
Winnie described her collegiate experience at Convention in the September 1926 issue of The Eleusis as, “Only those who attended can fully realize what it meant to spend together, in a veritable fairyland, those five well planned days under the guidance of our Governing Council. Every hour was planned either to meet our common chapter problems or for the promotion of a beautiful fellowship between members of the various chapters… We must not restrict Chi Omega to the small sphere of our respective chapter. It is with deep sincerity that I say, every Chi Omega who attended Convention must love her Fraternity even better than before, if that were possible.”
In addition to her dedication to her Chi Omega Sisters, Winnie was also a devoted student on the University of Arkansas campus. As documented in a 1927 issue of The Eleusis, the Psi chapter correspondent shared, “One of the outstanding honors that came to Psi this spring was the selection of Winnie Hopkins, our president, as the recipient of three of the most coveted campus honors. She was chosen as queen of the annual Engineers’ Day (over which she presided with charming grace), honorary lieutenant colonel of the local R.O.T.C., and president of the Woman’s League.”
Life at the National Level
After a robust college career, Winnie married her husband, La Rue Bowker, on December 28, 1927, and in 1936, she began her time as a Chapter Visitor for the National Fraternity. In this role she travelled to chapters across the country assisting with chapter programming, operations, and recruitment.
Then, for many years, she was a Firesides Leader and often traveled to be the honored guest and speaker at Eleusinian celebrations and State Day meetings. Her speaking engagements continued throughout her entire Chi Omega life, as did her service on many installation teams (the National team of staff and volunteers dedicated to starting a new Chi Omega chapter), One of the many chapters Winnie helped to install was Xi Kappa/Texas A&M where S.H. Shelley Potter was a member of the charter class!
“As I think back about my Chi Omega journey and the Sisters whom I’ve had the privilege to know,” says S.H. Shelley Potter, “among my most favorite memories is my initiation and the installation of the Xi Kappa Chapter at Texas A&M. How fortunate were we to have S.H. Winnie Bowker to install our chapter. I still remember her charm and warmth. We had known her from a photo in our pledge manual, and there she was – so precious and joyous, bringing to life that we had joined something beyond Texas A&M. Accompanying her was her daughter Saranne ‘Punky’ Penberthy, Iota Alpha/SMU, with whom I would later serve on the Governing Council. Punky’s mother-in-law Lollie Penberthy was a Xi Kappa Special Initiate with us.”
Winnie’s alumnae life was rich with experience, and she had a hand in almost every area of the Fraternity’s achievements. In 1954, her contributions were honored as she was elected to the office of S.N.V. where she served until 1970. Tasked with the duty of transitioning Chi Omega out of the long-term leadership of former S.H. Mary Love Collins, Winnie Bowker served as S.H. from 1970–1976.
She led the Fraternity’s Executive Headquarters through many extensive changes in those coming years including its move to Cincinnati’s Carew Tower, computerizing the membership roll, and hiring an Executive Director. Through all of these purposeful changes, Winnie kept the traditions and integrity of Chi Omega intact and at the center of the Fraternity’s growth.
Thanks in part to her highly requested speaking talents, Winnie visited all 168 chapters during her term as S.H. Decades of Eleusis issues overflow with chapter correspondents’ reveling in their memories of her visits.
In 1975, Psi Chapter even held a “Winnie Bowker Day” on campus “for her devoted service to Chi Omega and her friendship to us all.” Psi Chapter invited Winnie as guest of honor as they presented to her the fifty-year Chi Omega pin. Greeted by all Psi collegians and hundreds of alumnae, she spoke of the future of Chi Omega and its growth since she had served as G.H. of Psi Chapter in the 1920s.
Winnie’s leadership was laced with warmth and empathy and her words were always hung onto dearly. One of her most memorable speeches still referenced by Sisters today reads, “A real challenge faces Chi Omega to maintain its fraternity image. How can this be done? First, know your Sisters. Then, know your Fraternity on your own campus and in your state. Be glad you are a member of a national fraternity. Always be proud, but with humility. In other words, be aware of Chi Omega’s purposes. Remember they are the backbone of our Fraternity. The Greek letter fraternity is an invaluable teacher of self-reliance, social grace, and scholarship all welded together by that mystical bond called Sisterhood, a togetherness as ancient as the ages.”
She served as Chi Omega’s representative to National Panhellenic Conference for many years where her charm and wit made her a favorite among her many interfraternal friends. After six years as S.H., she served as President of the Chi Omega Education Foundation, what would later become the Chi Omega Foundation, from 1977-1982.
On December 31, 1984, Winnie entered the Omega Chapter, and in the 1985 Eleusis issue that honored her life and devotion to Chi Omega former S.H. Kirk Cocke said, “While we will miss her we are thankful for the example she set in her life for our sisterhood, and her loyalty and devotion. As S.H., she presided over a trying transitional period of our Fraternity’s history. She showed us by example the true meaning of ‘to be womanly always to be discouraged never.’ She enriched our lives and left us and her Fraternity stronger for having walked among us.”
Winnie’s Chi Omega legacy also lives on in generations of her family. Her daughter, Saranne “Punky” Bowker Penberthy, Iota Alpha/SMU, served as S.N.V. from 1994–2000. Her two granddaughters Cyndi Penberthy Graham, Iota/Texas, and Rebecca Penberthy Clark, Iota/Texas, and two great-granddaughters Isabelle Graham Wagner, Xi Kappa/Texas A&M, and Frances Graham, Xi Kappa/Texas A&M, are now Chi Omegas as well.