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Artist, advocate, Marine: New Pasco school security director compelled to serve

LAND O’ LAKES — Chris Stowe has a storied past as an explosives technician in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The retired master gunnery sergeant has mementos of his service — a field knife mounted to the lid of an explosives box, for instance — hanging prominently in his new office as Pasco County schools security director.

Though proud of his 24-year career, with several stints in the Middle East, Stowe isn’t one to dwell on it. (Though do ask him about whether it’s possible for a Mercedes engine block to protect two soldiers from enemy fire.)

His life, he remarked, is one with a "comma, not a period."

"A problem people have when military service ends is, they feel that is all they had to offer. I don’t highlight that I spent 24 years in the Marine Corps. I’ve got other things to offer," Stowe, 43, explained.

He’s a dad and husband, environmentalist and school volunteer, not to mention veterans advocate and arts enthusiast.

He pointed in his office to the oil paintings and glass sculptures he made, which sit in stark juxtaposition to his Marine mementos.

Art, part of his life since he was assigned to graphic design detail after boot camp, became part of his salvation after struggling with the stress and depression brought by being blown up, shot at and wounded.

Working for then-U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida as a wounded warrior Congressional fellow, he found that the Veterans Administration didn’t help recovering veterans as much as he thought they should. He vowed to do more than just complain.

"One of the biggest things that helped me through a lot of things is, I learned art therapy when I was up in D.C.," Stowe said.

Not only did he learn it, he helped spread it throughout the system. Among other things, he helped establish a glass blowing program for Tampa Bay area veterans, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and operated through the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg.

"In my wildest dreams, we couldn’t be this successful were it not for Chris really helping and guiding us through the process and staying so committed," said Michael Killoren, Morean CEO, who first met Stowe in Washington, D.C. "You just couldn’t ask for a better advocate for the role of the arts in healing."

It was that aspect of Stowe’s life that made him stand out to Pasco County officials as they looked to hire their first security director, to oversee all elementary school guards and write the district’s security policies and protocols.

"We were impressed by his resume," which included counterterrorism and bomb detonation work, assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn said. "But we were probably more so by his demeanor and what we thought his fit would be with our organization."

She noted specifically his interest in mental health issues, and called Stowe’s stance "a really important asset for this position."

Stowe knew he wanted the job from the moment he read the employment ad.

He had a job advising the U.S. Central Command that he was good at, but didn’t love. This, by contrast, carried "no ambiguity as to why [it] is important."

It combined community service, to which Stowe has dedicated himself and his family, with protection of children, which has clear implications.

"I would talk about school safety with my neighbors," Stowe said. "The day this job became available, I got a notification. There wasn’t even a hesitation."

Preston Hair, one of Stowe’s friends from his Lutz neighborhood, said he was not surprised by Stowe’s move.

"It seems like he really wants to fill his life with a lot of great things to help others," Hair said. "If anyone I could hand-pick for that job, it would absolutely be him."

Hair recalled one time when Stowe drove by his home and saw him struggling to unload a truck carrying materials and supplies for a major kitchen project.

"I didn’t have to ask. He just saw the look on my face" and jumped out to help — not for a few minutes but until the work was done, Hair said. "That’s just Chris."

Sitting in his office before target practice, Stowe said he intends to ensure that the security team is fully integrated into the schools. No guard should be arms-crossed and unapproachable, though they should stand out as the armed, uniformed point of reference for campus safety.

And Stowe, who won’t assign himself a school, but will be armed, plans to be an equally visible presence as he strives to find the best answers to protecting and preparing the schools.

"I think this position needs to be a position that listens," he said. "It’s a culture change, and not just the guard. We’re realizing you can’t just shut the door, sit back and hope for the best."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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