Jerry Fowler's Long, Winding Road from Growing Up in Dallas to Saving Darfur

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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Jerry Fowler at the Chad-Darfur border in 2004

There was a brief mention in the National Journal last week concerning the new executive director of Save Darfur, the worldwide coalition of "faith-based, advocacy and humanitarian organizations" united to, well, save Darfur. (And, yes, give the cast of Ocean's Eleven something to do with their off hours.) In this small piece, no larger than a few paragraphs, it said that Jerry Fowler was "a native of Dallas," though his official bio makes no reference to his hometown, and a Google search proved equally fruitless. So last week I called Save Darfur, which is HQ'd in Washington, D.C., and set up an interview with Fowler to talk about growing up in Dallas. We finally spoke yesterday evening.

Turns out, he's not actually a native: Fowler tells Unfair Park he moved here in 1967, when he was 7, because his father was a pilot for American Airlines -- which, he figures, "oriented me to the fact that there was a broader world out there." When he was a kid, Fowler and his family lived near Midway Road and Northwest Highway in Northwest Dallas; he attended middle school at Edward H. Cary, near Walnut Hill and Marsh lanes. But he says it was likely the years spent at Jesuit College Preparatory School on Inwood Road that led him first to Princeton University, then the U.S. Army, then Stanford Law, then the U.S. Department of Justice, then the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience, then, finally, Save Darfur -- with seemingly dozens of other stops in between.

"I was always interested in the world at large, and in terms of focusing on human rights, I credit the Jesuits a lot," he says. "Their ethos is very much found in the phrase they use: creating 'men for others.' Of course, they're educating boys, but that means a commitment to social justice. At Jesuit, they have a very robust community service program, so I think I credit them with shaping a lot of my perspective on a sense of service and helping people who are in need.

"I think with each of us, every place we go has an effect on us -- and they're often effects we don't anticipate. Princeton had a lot of effect on me, but I didn't suddenly get to Princeton and discover there was another world out there. I wanted to have some form of public service, and so the roots are certainly deeper than Princeton, though they certainly developed a lot there. But it was growing up in Dallas and part of it was my dad and part of it was the Jesuits."

And it first revealed itself in 1991, Fowler says, when he was in private practice and he began representing political asylum applicants pro bono. "That really refocused me on what was important to me and what I guess in my heart I thought I would be doing with my life," he says. "And that touched into things I felt in high school and before, and that got me on the course that led me here. Before that, it was a little more winding, but it was always justice and fairness and giving a voice to those who are voiceless."

Until his selection to head Save Darfur, Fowler was founding director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience, where he began to document the genocide in the Sudan during May 2004. He returned with this photo essay and audio tour.

Fowler's family still lives in the Dallas area, including his folks and two brothers -- one of whom's a teacher in Arlington, one of whom's in the restaurant business. And Jerry only a few days into his job: Fowler officially became executive director of Save Darfur on Monday, and he's still getting acquainted with his new digs -- before heading to Europe over the weekend to meet with international partners and to deliver a speech in Paris, before then heading to New York and New Jersey.

"Some of it's campaigning, going around and keeping this issue at the forefront," Fowler says. "It's been going on for a while, and it's easy for people to lose interest, and the human need is still so immense, and our ability to improve the situation is so great too."

Fowler ends our chat by adding, "Just so you know, I'm still a huge Cowboys fan, and I'm still trying to get over that dark day" against the New York Giants. Still, though, his job does have a way of helping one over the Cowboys' collapse. "Yeah," he says, "this does put that in perspective." --Robert Wilonsky

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