So, what exactly is retirement from a job requiring him to spend countless hours out on the lake?
Joe Stowe laughs.
“Keep doing the same thing,” he said. “Just keep on going right up and down the lake.”
Stowe, 77, is retiring Jan. 1 as executive director of the Lake Wylie Marine Commission. He joined the group in 1999 as a multi-term commissioner representing Gaston County. He chaired the group for seven years in that role. After fulfilling his commissioner role in fall 2008, he was named executive director a few months later.
Accomplishments by the marine commission in his 18 years with the group are many, but one comes to mind first.
“We worked on Riversweep, and it’s grown into what it has,” Stowe said. “We were there when it started to grow.”
Lake Wylie Riversweep is annual lake cleanup effort, sponsored by the commission, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and Lake Wylie Covekeepers, that yields tons of trash and has grown since it started 15 years ago with hundreds of volunteers participating.
“Joe knows how to get things done — calling the right person, choosing the best resources, recruiting helpers and equipment,” said Commissioner Ellen Goff, who met Stowe in fall 2006 when she became Lake Wylie Lakekeeper. “Joe knows a lot of people in North and South Carolina through his long commitment to community service and environmental stewardship.”
Some lake issues came and went quickly. Others, like a law enforcement facility on the lake, took years of work and monthly updates at the marine commission meetings. When it finally opened in 2010, then Sgt. Todd Campbell with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources pointed back to a conversation with Stowe from a decade earlier as the reason.
“He asked me what could he do to make my job easier,” Campbell said in May 2010. “That’s the wrong thing to say to anybody in law enforcement.”
The executive director role of the marine commission works that way. Most people see the director by a boat at Riversweep or on a vessel ahead of busy boating weekends promoting safety, or maybe at a boat show or parade. Or, in the case of the law enforcement site, a waterfront lunch on a picture perfect day.
“It takes a good bit of time, and it takes somebody who has a lot of time,” Stowe said of the role he’s leaving.
When a change is needed, navigating the two state and three county agencies surrounding the lake can be tricky.
“He knows the people that you need to talk to to get things approved,” said former commission chairman Smitty Hanks, who recently returned to the group representing Gaston County. “He just opens so many doors. He has done so much for all three counties. He has done so much for the lake.”
Hanks said bridges and no wake zones are marked because of Stowe’s work, rules enforced.
“Joe’s got some talents that will be extremely hard for us to replace,” Hanks said.
Goff said Stowe’s experience and leadership are “invaluable and impossible to replace.”
“Joe’s leadership style was immediately apparent by his dedication to the lake, his affability and good humor, and his ability to bring all sides of an issue together for the best, positive outcome,” Goff said.
As a fellow Gaston County resident, Hanks said he and others sometimes pick on Stowe because of his last name. Many in the area are familiar with the Stowe family’s long-time contributions to the area, including Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden’s namesake who provided the land and vision for that attraction. But Hanks recognizes how important Stowe’s connections have been to the commission.
“He’s a fun loving guy, but when he’s talking about the lake and what the commission does, he’s pretty much straight business,” Hanks said.
Stowe is pleased the commission’s work the past two decades, and he’s leaving a commission that has a good mix of youth and balance.
“A lot of things should be lasting on the lake,” Stowe said. “I have absolutely no regrets.
“It’s been a good ride,” he said.