Skip to Content

Remembering Bob Sowder: Laurel Ridge Community College Honors the ‘Fauquier Campus Grandfather’

Family, acquaintances, and members of the community gathered at the Laurel Ridge Community College Fauquier Campus on Monday to honor the life of Bobby Gene “Bob” Sowder, a respected Fauquier resident and entrepreneur who passed away at the age of 85.

Conducted by Owen Mullenax, a senior figure at the Manassas Church of Christ, the event commemorated Sowder’s significant contributions to the community.

Sowder played a pivotal role in establishing Laurel Ridge Community College in Fauquier County, driven by his belief in the value of education, influenced by his upbringing in rural Weirwood, West Virginia.

When presented with an opportunity to assist the Virginia community college system, he generously provided rent-free access to what is now known as “The Barn” on his Corral Farm property just south of Warrenton on Route 29. Additionally, he donated $90,000 towards its conversion into classrooms, laying the foundation for the Fauquier campus, which was inaugurated in September 1988 following Sowder’s donation of the barn and surrounding 2.5 acres.

Kim Blosser

Kim Blosser, the President of Laurel Ridge Community College, delivered a tribute to Bob Sowder at his Celebration of Life on April 8. Grace Schumacher | FauquierNow

“Bob was not only a generous benefactor but also a staunch supporter. He advocated on our behalf, encouraged student enrollment, and periodically ensured that there were ample funds in his account to assist students in need,” expressed Kim Blosser, President of Laurel Ridge Community College. “On behalf of the entire college community, we extend our deepest condolences to Janet, Andrew, and all his loved ones as we honor the life and legacy of an exceptionally remarkable individual.”

Throughout his lifetime, Sowder remained committed to advancing education in Fauquier County alongside his wife, Janet. Together, they established an endowed scholarship and an emergency fund for local students, among other philanthropic endeavors.

Bob Sowder in 2017

Fauquier Campus Provost Chris Coutts (left), former Laurel Ridge President Cheryl Thompson-Stacy at his right, Bob Sowder, and Laurel Ridge Foundation Executive Director Liv Heggoy. Provided by Laurel Ridge Community College

“I firmly believe in the transformative power of education,” stated Sowder in an interview a few months before his demise. “Many individuals would not have the opportunity to better their circumstances if it weren’t for the local community college. The impact of education is truly remarkable.”

Starting with minimal resources and an eighth-grade education, Sowder left his hometown in the coalfields of West Virginia to seek employment and prospects in the northeastern United States. He later returned to school to obtain his high school equivalency diploma.

Sowder’s journey from a one-room schoolhouse in West Virginia to a successful five-decade career in real estate development exemplifies the opportunities that education can offer, as noted by Deborah “Dee” Wagle, a colleague and friend of Sowder who later enrolled as a student at Laurel Ridge.

“He was deeply involved in the community, advocating strongly for education. He understood how to overcome challenges and maintained a positive outlook,” she reflected. “Thank you, Bob and Janet, for the impact you had on my professional and personal life, and for supporting others.”

Sowder’s son, Andrew Sowder, present at the ceremony with his family, fondly reminisced about his father who, despite facing obstacles in pursuing formal education, facilitated educational opportunities for his family and many others.

Andrew Sowder

Andrew Sowder shared memories of his father, Bob Sowder, at a Celebration of Life event dedicated to the influential education advocate on April 8. Grace Schumacher | FauquierNow

“I know my father placed great value on education, based on my own experiences. Unlike him, my mother, and others in this room, I had the privilege and encouragement to focus solely on my studies. I never doubted my ability to attend college. Thanks to his dedication, his grandchildren now have the same prospects,” Andrew expressed. “I believe his passion lives on through the opportunities created by his numerous projects, particularly benefiting aspiring nurses, teachers, welders, businesspersons, and entrepreneurs, enriching their journey from Weirwood to Warrenton.”

In addition to his contributions to education, Sowder emerged as a prominent figure in the real estate sector, founding several real estate and land development enterprises. He was honored as the Fauquier Chamber of Commerce Business Person of the Year in 1997.

Acknowledging his profound influence, the Fauquier campus library was named in his honor as the “Bob G. Sowder Library” in 1999, dedicated to his mother, Goldie Settle Sowder. Laurel Ridge Community College bestowed various accolades upon him, including the Medallion of Recognition in 1989, an honorary degree in 1990, and the Chancellor’s Award for Leadership in Philanthropy in 2009.

“We celebrate the life of Bob Sowder. He envisioned a brighter future for our community,” remarked Joel Barkman, a close friend of the Sowder family and a board member of the Laurel Ridge Foundation. “Let us all carry forward that vision and spirit of generosity. May we continue this journey together in the community.”

Joel Barkman

Joel Barkman, a family friend of the Sowders and a board member of the Laurel Ridge Foundation, shared reflections on Bob Sowder at his Celebration of Life on April 8. Grace Schumacher | FauquierNow