Transformational estate gift shines spotlight on donor’s passions

Michele Bowman Underwood has made an estate gift to the University to support modern languages, women’s health, and women’s golf.

By Pamela Edward

Michele Bowman Underwood has made an estate gift to the University to support modern languages, women’s health, and women’s golf.

Transformational estate gift shines spotlight on donor’s passions

By Pamela Edward
An avid golfer and multilingual traveler, Michele Bowman Underwood has woven the strands of her life into a permanent legacy with a gift to the University’s Ever Brighter campaign that supports modern languages, women’s health, and women’s golf.

By any measure, Michele Bowman Underwood has a life well-lived—worldly, well-travelled, sporting, and adventurous. Listen to her reminisce and a more profound story emerges, as does a lively intellect and a keen understanding of how opportunities denied can leave potential wasted. 

And having had no children of her own, Bowman Underwood said that “the University of Miami is my child.” In that spirit, she has made a commitment to bequeath a large share of her estate to the University. 

Valued at more than $25 million, her bequest will benefit the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, to be named in her honor at a reception in the College of Arts and Sciences on Feb. 9. The gift will also fund research focused on women’s health at the Miller School of Medicine and provide scholarships and program support for the women’s golf team. 

Bowman Underwood’s gift is part of the University’s Ever Brighter: The Campaign for Our Next Century. The most ambitious in the University’s history, the $2.5 billion campaign is set to conclude in 2025, when the University will celebrate its centennial. 

“We are grateful to Michele Bowman Underwood for her generosity, which will advance key priorities at the University of Miami,” said President Julio Frenk. “Her support will embolden our pursuit of discovery and knowledge creation in two fields of study—modern languages and women’s health—and will also open doors to brighter opportunities for our student-athletes in golf.” 

Bowman Underwood has previously supported various areas of the institution, primarily through planned giving. Her initial gifts, to the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and the Department of Chemistry, were made in 1997 in memory of her late first husband, Philip Bowman. A distinguished research chemist who served as president and chairman of Bristol Laboratories, Bowman pursued the study of marine biology and biochemistry as pathways to unlocking the pharmaceutical potential of the world’s oceans. 

With this bequest, Bowman Underwood has designated areas of support that are all deeply personal, for reasons that reach back to her childhood. 

As a young girl growing up in a French Jewish-Catholic family in wartime Algiers, she endured frequent bombing raids. Her family was in peril of the threat posed by the Nazi occupiers of French North Africa. Later, as immigrants, first to Brazil and then to Chile, the family waited years for the opportunity to come to the United States. 

“I am a World War II survivor—we were bombed on a nightly basis,” she recalled. “We could not come to the U.S. right away because there were quotas [on European immigrants] at the time. Brazil was accepting French people, so we went there. We waited 10 years in Brazil.” 

In Brazil, Bowman Underwood learned Portuguese, attended high school, and began to appreciate the importance of languages in facilitating understanding between people. In addition to her native French, she speaks, reads, and writes English, Portuguese, and Spanish. 

Eventually, Bowman Underwood’s father took a job in Chile with an American company distributing and promoting “El Cid,” the 1961 historical drama starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. 

The move forestalled the possibility of Bowman Underwood going to university. “I had just finished high school, and I had to learn another language, Spanish, and go to work,” she said. “I could have been a contender, as they say, but when you’re not afforded the opportunities in the first place, it’s hard.” Her father’s job did, however, result in the family obtaining visas to come to the U.S., where she met Philip Bowman and worked as a translator. 

The multilingual traveler said that she strongly believes that languages hold the keys to avoiding the kind of conflict her family escaped, hence her investment in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. “Many Americans don’t put enough effort into learning other languages,” she said. “Speaking English [only] is taken for granted. And you lose a lot—it’s worth making that effort.” 

Leonidas G. Bachas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, echoed Bowman Underwood’s sentiments. “The study of modern languages, literatures, and cultures is a valuable asset in a globalized world,” he said. “It opens doors to careers in education, business, law, politics, medicine, the arts, and more. Mrs. Bowman Underwood’s gift has the potential to help people better understand each other—and lead to a better future for our children.” 

Bowman Underwood’s support of women’s health and women’s golf arose from her conviction that when women don’t have access to appropriate health care or educational opportunities, societies suffer. In health care, for example, Bowman Underwood said that she believes that established medicine is still too focused on men. “Women’s physiology is different, their response to medication is different, and diseases affect women differently. There needs to be more research, and I want to invest in that research,” she said. 

The avid golfer frames her support of the Hurricanes women’s golf team in similar fashion. Not having had the opportunity for higher education herself, she is eager to bring that same opportunity within reach for talented young female golfers. 

She knows a thing or two about golfing talent, having taken up the game in her late 40s after her first husband died. “I took lessons from a pro,” she said. “I wanted to learn properly. I spent six months on a range just hitting irons.” The methodical approach paid off—Bowman Underwood reached a five handicap. 

She and her second husband, retired Marine Col. Joseph Underwood, have traveled to more than 120 countries all over Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Mediterranean to play golf. They recently played their 1,000th different course, in Hobe Sound, Florida, near their home. 

When asked why she gives, Bowman Underwood pointed to the missions of the organizations she supports, which include the U.S. Olympic Team and the Salvation Army, as well as the University of Miami. “I want my money and property to go into the community, where it will be put to the best use for causes that are important to me.” 

“With this gift to the University, Michele Bowman Underwood is bringing her passions to life at the U,” said Josh Friedman, senior vice president for development and alumni relations. “She is making this extraordinary commitment to the programs and disciplines that matter most to her, and her legacy will help the University make great things happen in these areas in perpetuity.”