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Pistol permit chief, an original Bill, hangs up holster at age 80

Will Fowler is retiring. Again.

When the longtime director of Erie County’s Pistol Permits Office hung up his holster Friday, it was the fourth time that he had signed off on a career.

This time it might stick.

“This was his retirement job,” said Alan Brown, Fowler’s colleague in the permit office. Brown pointed out that the “retirement job” lasted for 30 years.

But now, after turning 80 years old on June 3, Fowler said, “It’s just time.”

Fowler leaves his county job as the only person who has ever held it. Issuing pistol permits was a state responsibility until 1987, when the task was turned over to New York’s counties. At the time, Fowler was growing bored with all the leisure time he had after his retirement from IBM.

He didn’t even have the Army National Guard as a backup, since he retired from that in 1981 with the rank of captain, having served 20 years.

But it was his first retirement, in the early 1960s, that proved the most difficult, mostly because it wasn’t by choice, Fowler said.

“I came here to play professional football, and I’ve been here ever since,” Fowler said.

Fowler was a Buffalo Bill.

Growing up near Cleveland, Wilmer Fowler always loved sports. He played football at Northwestern University and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1959. When the team released him, he went to the Cleveland Browns, where he met Dick Gallagher, who later became the first general manager for Buffalo’s new AFL team. Gallagher called him in 1960.

“Dick said to me, ‘If you want to come to Buffalo, I’ve got a job for you,’ ” Fowler said.

And that’s how Fowler became No. 23 on the first Buffalo Bills team. He was a starting half-back – one of five African-Americans on that inaugural team. And he did pretty well. His official NFL stats are 94 carries for 372 yards, plus he had the team’s first 100-yard rushing game. But it ended when he ruptured his Achilles tendon in 1961. He knew by 1964 that his playing days were over.

Other things didn’t end: his love of football, his affection for Western New York, and the friendships he made with those early Bills players and many who came after them.

“It was a fun time. It was a fun time in Buffalo and a fun time to be a player with the Bills,” he said.

Enjoying his work followed him to his other jobs and to others around him.

“He’s well-liked here, easygoing and always willing to help,” said State Supreme Court Justice M. William Boller, who handles many pistol permit applications. “He is liked and respected by all our gun organizations, and he’ll be sorely missed.”

Early on, most people seeking permits were hunters, sports shooters, or people with a specific need for personal protection, Fowler said.

But in recent years, gun ownership has increased. The office issued some 800 permits in 2008 and about 4,000 last year.

“Shortly after the first Obama election there was a spike,” Brown said, when some people were afraid gun ownership would be restricted. The numbers also go up after dramatic mass shootings, like the attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando.

“We register 20 to 30 handguns every single day that we’re open,” Fowler said, and even more at the end of each year.

“You wouldn’t believe the guns people get for Christmas.”

Fowler is a hunter himself, although he said he likes the sport whether or not he shoots anything.

“I don’t have to kill game to enjoy being in the woods,” he said.

And now, he says, he’ll have more time to enjoy all his pastimes – including watching the Buffalo Bills.

“I think we’re going to see some really good football this year. I really do.”

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