JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Tillie Fowler shook up Northeast Florida's political scene with her neatly coiffed hair and signature frames, She retired as the most powerful woman in congress, walking through doors few women could at the time. Fowler became many firsts for Northeast, Florida and our nation.
"She knew she was going to have to work harder, she was going to have to build bridges and that she was going to have to serve on the right committees," said Michael Munz who served as Fowler’s campaign manager when she won a seat in congress in 1992.
Working harder, smarter and knowing how to maneuver her way around tough senior officials in Washington, D.C is what earned Tillie Fowler the nickname ‘Steel Magnolia.’
Elected to the Jacksonville City Council in 1989, she became the first woman and first Republican to lead the Council. A freshman representing Northeast, Florida in Congress in 1992 Tillie was the first Florida Republican elected to the House. She also served on the Armed Services and Transportation Committees, fighting for our military. But besides her many accomplishments Tillie was a true mentor, rearing many successful men and women on the First Coast.
"She was integral in how my career has progressed," said Stephanie Kopelousos while sitting in a park named after her mentor. Kopelousos, now the Clay County Manager recalls her time with 'Steel Magnolia.'
"I was a kid when I started working for her," said Kopelousos.
Fresh out of college, a family connection landed Kopelousos in Congresswoman Tillie Fowler's D.C. office as an intern. She would end up working for Fowler for 7 years.
"She was a tough cookie, she truly was,” said Kopelousos. “She did her homework. She was always prepared and she taught us to always be prepared. Just from a transportation standpoint you see the things she's accomplished with the Wonderwood Expressway, Fuller Warren Bridge replacement, I mean those types of things that left a mark on our community."
More important some would argue, is the mark she has left on so many people. Now the President of PR and Social Media Group at the Dalton Agency, Michael Munz served as Fowler's campaign manager 25 years ago, when she won a seat in congress. But to this day he still asks himself, "I'll think, I wonder what Tillie would do. She was probably one of the most important not just women, but one of the most important people in my life. I attribute where I am today because of a lot of the things I learned from her."
Her contributions to Northeast Florida are countless. But in particular what many remember, is how hard ‘Steel Magnolia’ fought for our military.
"She was a very strong advocate for the military even before she was a member of congress,” said Munz. “When she sat on the Jacksonville city council she was very much a proponent of having a strong military and she understood what a strong military meant to Jacksonville. From an economic stand point to helping the families."
"She was real,” said Kopelousos. “She was the person that you met whether it was in a restaurant, in a board room, on the floor in congress fighting for the things that are important to her, she was the same person."
Some say politics is in Fowler’s blood. Family friend, David Gilliand shared a photo of a young Tillie with FCN as she stood on former Georgia Governor Talmadge’s desk. Both Talmadge and Tillie’s father, Culver Kidd smiled at the young politician in the making. Her father served in the state legislature for 40 years.
Tillie Fowler died on March 2, 2005 at age 62 of a brain hemorrhage. In 2006 she was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.
"You are always a Southern lady, but being a lady doesn't mean you can't be tough." -Tillie K. Fowler