Bowles was born in Monroe, North Carolina  and served in the United States Military during World War II (1943–1945). In the early 1960s, Bowles served as Governor Terry Sanford's Secretary of Conservation and Development, a post which later became known as Secretary of Commerce. Afterwards, Bowles was elected to one term in the North Carolina House of Representatives and two terms in the North Carolina Senate.
In 1972 Bowles won the Democratic primary for Governor of North Carolina but lost the general election to James Holshouser. Thus, he became the first Democratic nominee to lose the North Carolina gubernatorial race in the twentieth century.
Bowles later became known for his service to and fundraising for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from which he graduated in 1941. UNC's Center for Alcohol Studies is named for him.
Bowles died in 1986 from complications of Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).
His son, Erskine Bowles, followed his father both into the investment banking business and into politics.
- North Carolina Business Hall of Fame, "Laureate Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles", accessed July 13, 2007.
- 1972 Democratic primary for Governor. OurCampaigns.com
- 1972 NC Governor general election results - OurCampaigns.com
- News & Observer: Cuts: Center for Alcohol Studies
- Bowles Center History
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