PORTLAND, Maine — Early this summer, in the final stages of breast cancer, Amanda Rowe herded her husband’s friends and family to a local barbecue restaurant to celebrate her husband’s 60th birthday.
Despite her illness, the party came as no surprise to Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, a longtime friend of Amanda and Steven Rowe.
“Amanda was straightforward and direct, and always very clear in the fact that things needed to get done and why they needed to get done,” Brennan said Monday. “She was really fearless, not only about dealing with cancer, but about any other difficult issues. She always said, ‘This is just the right thing to do,’ and she’d move with it. Fearless.”
Amanda Charles (Long) Rowe, 58, a fierce advocate for children’s health and the wife of former Maine attorney general and House speaker Steven Rowe, died Sunday after a long battle with metastatic breast cancer.
“Amanda was undaunted by controversy, she was undaunted by obstacles and she was persistent,” Steven Rowe said Monday of his wife, a longtime school nurse and leader of the school-based health clinic program in the Portland Public Schools. He also spoke of her kindness, warmth and genuine interest in those she met.
“It’s a tragedy for the state,” former Maine Senate President Beth Edmonds said Monday, calling Rowe “the mother of school-based health clinics in Portland.” Edmonds said Rowe always had a box of clothes available for children without a coat or mittens, and made sure the shower at King Middle School worked in case a student needed to use it.
“I think lots of times people talk about policy, but Amanda was somebody who saw young people and their families every day and did everything in her power to make their lives go better, particularly around health care,” Edmonds said. “It’s a huge loss to the state.”
Rowe moved to South Portland when she was 10, and graduated from South Portland High School. She went on to earn a degree from the University of Maryland after winning a Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing scholarship, according to her family. She served as an Army nurse and an advanced nurse practitioner, and served briefly in the Gulf War, retiring as a lieutenant colonel after 20 years.
She met her husband, Steven Rowe, at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. They married and settled in Portland with his three young children, Robert, Chris and Angela. In 1984, they had a daughter, Lindsay Rowe.
Rowe worked as a health teacher and then a school nurse and school nurse coordinator during a 30-year career with the Portland Public Schools. She was the school nurse at Hall Elementary School for more than 20 years, then helped establish the system’s school-based health clinics.
In 2007, King Middle School — and Rowe — became the focus of a media frenzy when the school board voted to allow students as young as 11 to receive birth control at the school’s health clinic.
Amanda Rowe became a target of criticism, much of it politically motivated because Steve Rowe then served as Maine’s attorney general. Throughout it all, her husband said Monday, she continued to be “fearless and courageous.”
“She stood up and spoke her mind,” Steven Rowe said. “She consistently advocated for those most vulnerable and stayed true to her convictions. … People respected her because of her courage and her dignity. She exhibited it throughout, even in the last few months.”
“The thing I will carry with me is her passion for caring for children and their families,” said Rep. Anne Graham of North Yarmouth, who worked as a nurse practitioner at King Middle School during the contraception controversy. “She was tireless … she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid-1990s and it never stopped her.”
An avid hiker, Rowe walked the northernmost 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail and — after her latest cancer diagnosis — hiked across the Grand Canyon twice.
During the recently concluded school year, Rowe was on sick leave, and then disability retirement, but her husband said she continued to provide support and guidance to school nurses throughout the state. Until November, Amanda Rowe cared for her elderly mother, who suffers from dementia, Steven Rowe said.
“Even though she was sick, she continued to try to do what she could to help anyone,” he said. “Amanda dealt with her own illness and helped her mom. She was just a person who was all about care and compassion. She was the most courageous and caring person I have ever known. The world’s a better place because of Amanda Rowe.”
In a statement Monday, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree wrote of Rowe’s strength, passion “and tireless devotion to the health of our children. Whether battling breast cancer or advocating for the best interest of our kids, she never shied away from a fight.”
A memorial service celebrating Amanda Rowe’s life will be held at 2 p.m. July 24, at the Cathedral Church of Saint Luke, 143 State St., Portland.