Unlike most fifth-graders, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow spent time penning letters to prospective law schools in California, reading the United States Constitution and learning about the country’s founding principles to educate himself on what it would take to become a lawyer.
“I think I had an idealistic view of what lawyers do,” Dow said, noting he didn’t know any attorneys at the time, and that his family didn’t use them. “I really had no practical understanding … it was all just from reading.”
Born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Dow lived in Pigeon Cove until he was 3, when his father moved the family to Maine. The elder Dow—now 84 and still leading a congregation today—was the pastor of a small church in Pigeon Cove, and also worked at a family apple farm to support his wife and five children. Dow was the youngest of these and attended kindergarten through high school on the East Coast.
Early on, Dow developed a “real love for and fascination” with history, particularly American history. And he did a lot of reading about the country’s founding fathers as well as its founding principles. But it was writing those query letters to law schools, and receiving replies, which led him to delve further into the goal of practicing law.
He’d get there eventually, but it wasn’t until after he’d fulfilled an eight-year contract with the U.S. Army and was working in the Silicon Valley that he was able to pursue law school.
“I realized it was going to be pretty expensive … so my buddies convinced me to join the Army National Guard to get money for college and also to grow up and see a little bit of the world,” Dow said.
Dow began serving in 1989 and spent four years in the National Guard. He served in the Army from 1991 to 1995, and then the Army Reserves for the last two years of his obligation. He was officially out in 1997 and said he never envisioned that part of his life’s journey would be a career in the United States military.
“That’s the weird thing about now being a lieutenant colonel,” Dow said. “I started out as a private … so lieutenant or captain is seen as insurmountable, a high-ranking person.”
Today, Dow’s 27-year career in the Army is still going strong. He serves in the Army Reserves and spends one weekend a month at Camp Roberts.
After leaving the Army—or so he thought—Dow moved to California, completed his undergraduate degree at Cal State Hayward, and began selling million-dollar servers for Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley. But in 2001, when the economic bubble was bursting and selling expensive computer systems was getting harder and harder, he decided to get out of the high-tech industry and pursue law school.
Dow knew it would be expensive to study law but he had an interest in becoming a JAG lawyer, so he enlisted in the California National Guard, which allowed him to learn first-hand from JAG lawyers, and gave him a little money to help contribute to married life. His wife, Wendy, agreed to continue working full-time so Dow could leave his career to attend law school. He earned his juris doctorate at Santa Clara University School of Law.
“I worked it out with the National Guard [that] instead of working my intel job, … they would let me be attached to a JAG officer so I could do on-the-job training,” Dow explained. “So I did that while I was in law school.”
Dow enlisted in June, started law school in August, and then the country was rocked by September 11 a month later. The once-again-enlisted officer was sent to war.
“My three-year law school career took four because I got deployed during the Iraq War. It got derailed a bit,” Dow said about being sent to Kosovo. He recalled the day he received the call.
He was picking up a framed collage of memorabilia he’d had commissioned that included a photograph of his great-great-great-grandfather, James Dow, in his Civil War uniform, along with the soldier’s business card that was found in an old family Bible in Maine, and the medals he’d earned during the war. That collage now hangs in Dow’s office in downtown San Luis Obispo.
“I was at the store picking it up when I got this call on my cell phone saying, ‘Sergeant Dow, you’re getting deployed,’” he said. “I just thought this was a little ironic, because he was the only direct ancestor on my Dad’s side that had served in the military. So that was kind of cool.”
While in law school and working alongside the JAG lawyers, Dow was sent to Camp Roberts monthly to help
soldiers who were getting ready to deploy, drawing up wills, health care directives and the like. He fell in love with the area and applied for a summer clerkship at the SLO County District Attorney’s office where he was given his first jury trial. He won a conviction.
Advised to get experience in a bigger market before heading into local courtrooms, Dow and his young family, which now included infant daughter, Chloe, moved to Riverside where he served as a deputy district attorney from 2005 to 2007. While there Dow prosecuted 100 felony preliminary hearings in his first six months.
“That was a phenomenal learning experience,” he said.
He returned to this county in 2007 and took a job as a prosecutor with the District Attorney’s Office. He has been here ever since, and was first elected to County District Attorney in 2014. He was re-elected in 2018. Now married nearly 28 years, he and Wendy have a young son and make their home in Templeton.
A strong believer in and advocate for truth and justice, Dow also believes in fairness and compassion. He chose a career on the prosecutorial side as it fits well with who he is.
“Part of who I am is a desire to help people,” Dow said. “I identify more with helping victims and the community and having public safety in order. … The way our system is sustained, I think, is dependent on having good, strong, ethical, compassionate people in these roles. … I want to hold people accountable. I want to help victims.”
When asked if he sees himself retiring from the D.A.’s Office, Dow said that as long as voters return him to office, he has no plans to go anywhere. That he loves the work he does, the community he serves and would be honored to stay in it until retirement.
“I like being a prosecutor instead of a civil lawyer,” he added, “because my ultimate obligation is to seek the truth. The prosecutor is always required to seek the truth. I just can’t say that enough.”