On the night of June 13, business owner Greg Dowell passed away unexpectedly in his Key Largo home. Though he had a history of heart trouble, loved ones were shocked by his death. He had seemed fine in previous days; he was even seen happily celebrating his 76th birthday on June 3 and attending the daily meetings of his spiritual fellowship.
The day after his passing, a group of Dowell’s friends and colleagues gathered to share their feelings.
“I said to everyone, ‘OK, let’s talk about it,’” said Jesse Hayes, an Islamorada commercial fisherman.
In response, the room — filled to capacity with mourners — fell dead silent.
“It was a long damn time before anyone could talk,” Hayes recalled. “The grief was dripping off the walls.”
Dowell was much more than just “a business owner.” Though his business accomplishments are impressive — he ran a coin laundromat for 16 years and just opened a car wash, both in Key Largo — perhaps his true legacy is his selfless mentorship of countless lost souls who needed help.
In interviews with Keys Weekly, his friends and family repeatedly described, as if in a chorus, a man who seemed to be lit from within by both a determined zest for life and a desire to be of service to both friends and strangers.
“I am crushed by his passing,” said Islamorada councilwoman Elizabeth Jolin. “Greg left light in his wake. He seemed an authority on right living by leading by example.”
“The community has lost one of its good guys,” said Michael Ledwith, owner of Chef Michael’s restaurant. “Greg had done so much for so many and quietly went about his day, never seeking any recognition.”
“It’s been such a huge shock. He was a dear, dear client,” said Christi Franchini, owner of Pilates in Paradise. “God rest his soul.”
He also leaves behind two sisters, two brothers-in-law, a son, a daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.
Dowell’s siblings have been moved by all the phone calls from the Upper Keys that describe how much he had affected their lives.
“There are no words to express what we’ve been hearing,” said sister Julie Ogilvie.
Dowell grew up in Lancaster, Ohio, in a stable, loving family. His parents were married for 62 years. He named his new business — Donnie’s Car Wash — after his father.
After graduating from Lancaster High School, Dowell spent most of his career in hospitality, eventually receiving a degree in hotel management from University of Nevada Las Vegas and moving to the Keys.
However, along the way, that nice kid from Lancaster developed a problem. As Dowell told his friends, he picked up toxic habits and behaviors that negatively affected his relationships, his jobs and his health.
But all that changed in 1990.
“He underwent a spiritual awakening and changed his lifestyle to one committed to the discipline of mind, body and spirit,” said close friend and retired nurse Jo Ann Aromandi. “And from that moment forward, he committed himself to a life of service to others.”
Fourteen years ago, Dowell guided her toward a healthier life after a difficult period.
“He offered encouragement,” she said, with emotion. “I watched him mentor hundreds of men and women, and he helped me do that, as well.”
He also didn’t take himself too seriously, jokingly calling himself “a spiritual giant” and constantly doling out “Greg-isms”: memorable turns of phrase that he often repeated.
“I’ll never forget his ‘suggestion’ that a goal we should all seek to achieve is to ‘go through our day with a quiet mind and a happy heart,’” said Ledwith.
“Oh, my head is full of ‘Greg-isms,’” said Aromandi. “Such as: ‘Try to do something nice for someone and not tell anybody.’”
Dowell followed up his Greg-isms with action, she said, pointing out that she found out “quite coincidentally” that he was driving an elderly cancer patient every day for a month for chemo to Miami — and never told anyone.
Kat Wheatley was Dowell’s yoga teacher and said he would give her mother free car washes. “I told him, ‘Greg, you can’t keep giving these car washes away.’”
These acts of kindness — most of which we’ll probably never know about — are generous. Yet they may pale in comparison to his loving guidance of those he steered away from the destructive path they were on toward a more serene life.
“A couple of people have reached out to me,” said Dowell’s other sister, Debi Dowell Stemble. “They say, ‘If it had not been for him, I would have been dead a long time ago.’”
Dowell’s friends and family feel immense gratitude just for having known him. (Full disclosure: This reporter is one of those people.) Which brings us to another Greg-ism. According to Aromandi, he said this phrase all the time:
“You are welded to our heart.”