In the 16 or so months that I have written this blog, I’ve had the opportunity to write several homages or tributes to great persons who inspired me in the course of my life. Some were persons I never actually met, some were entertainers, others athletes. And today, I write my most personal one yet, for today I would speak of Dr. John Owen.
If you’ve ever spent any time at all in my little mountain hometown of Dahlonega, Georgia since 1970, you’ve seen the handiwork of Dr. Owen, even if you didn’t realize it. He came to Dahlonega in 1970 as the 12th president of North Georgia College and State University and this town was never the same afterward.
Dr. Owen was born in Savannah, Georgia, and grew up in Quincy, Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. degree in three years. Yes, that’s right … THREE YEARS! With WWII underway, he entered Northwestern University Midshipman School in Chicago. He was commissioned an Ensign in the United States Naval Reserve in December, 1943.
During World War II he saw service as a naval officer in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea, Pacific, Philippine Islands, China Sea, Okinawa, Korea and Japan. He was a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve Research Units in Gainesville, Florida, and Athens, Georgia, from 1949-1969. In 1964 he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and in 1969, he retired with over 20 years of service.
After marrying his sweetheart, Margaret, in 1946, Dr. Owen entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin where he majored in Plant Pathology and Biochemistry and earned his Master’s and Doctorate Degrees (two of them!).
As the youngest President in the history of NGC (it was just NGC back then) in 1970, Dr. Owen immediately jumpstarted many programs still thriving today. He re-established the North Georgia College basketball programs in 1971, awarded the first women’s basketball scholarship in Georgia in 1974, revitalized the beautiful Dahlonega City Square (as President of the Chamber of Commerce), was instrumental in helping Dahlonega receive the much coveted “Stay and See Georgia” award, and was is overwhelmingly credited with bringing Highway 400 to its current terminus at Highway 60 in Lumpkin County. An intersection was named in his honor. The John H. Owen Hall at NGCSU was dedicated in his name in 2002.
Dr. Owen retired as President of NGCSU in 1992 after 22 years, but his service to the community NEVER stopped. I could write a book about Dr. Owen’s volunteer activities. He crossed all boundaries at every level … local, state, regional and national. He organized forums, workshops and seminars on crime and drug abuse, environmental control and tourism; provided meeting places for local senior citizens for five years until a senior center was built; actively supported the Boy Scouts of America, serving as director and Vice President of the Northeast Georgia Boy Scout Council and receiving the coveted Distinguished Eagle Scout Award in the early 1990’s; served on the Advisory Panel on ROTC Affairs, and as chairman of the organization for eight years, working with congress to increase the number of ROTC scholarships from 6,500 to 12,000; served as Director and Chairman of the Georgia Mountains Area Employment and Training Council (CETA), working with county officials and industries to help train the unemployed in north Georgia; and led the Dahlonega Lion’s Club project to raise funds and construct a pavilion and garden area at the local nursing home. He also served on the N.O.A. Board of Directors, was a long-time member of the United Community Bank of Dahlonega Board of Directors, and was active in Rotary, the Dahlonega Development Authority, and Dahlonega Methodist Church.
I owe my military career to Dr. Owen. He personally stepped in to help me as a cadet in 1980 and I will never be able to repay him. In the last few days, several of my classmates have contacted me to share similar stories of how Dr. Owen personally helped them as students at NGC. He never met any person whom he was unwilling to help if possible.
After I retired from the Army in 2006, I moved back to beloved Dahlonega and immediately relinked with one of the great heroes of my life. We served together in the Lions Club (an organization he’d been a member of for more than 40 years) and the weekly meeting of the Cooper-Green Men’s Prayer Group. Every time I’d see him, he would smile and share a kind word, no matter how he may have felt.
And now, this week, we all mourn the news … Dr. John Owen died on February 15, 2011, at North Georgia Regional Hospital in Gainesville, Georgia. He was 88. The words simply don’t sit well, either written or spoken. Dr. John Owen died. I am reminded of the classic scene from the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton 1963 film, Cleopatra, when Octavius (portrayed by Roddy McDowell) is given the news of the death of Mark Anthony:
“Is that how one says it? As simply as that? “Mark Antony is dead. Lord Antony is dead.” “The soup is hot; the soup is cold.” “Mark Antony is living; Mark Antony is dead.” Shake with terror when such words pass your lips … for your lifetime boast that you were honored to speak his name even in death. Dying, of such a man, must be shouted, screamed! It must dare go back from the corners of the universe. “Antony is dead! Mark Antony of Rome lives no more!”
The Roman poet, Virgil, once opined:
Knowledge comes and goes, but wisdom remains.
Dr. Owen touched the lives of countless men and women in his robust, 88 years of life on earth. So long as we remember the example he set for us, his wisdom remains intact and in play. Thanks for touching my life, sir. Any time I think that goodness is gone from our lives, I will remember you and the example you set. And I’m reminded of what we can be, if we follow the example of John Owen. Rest in peace, sir. I am a lucky man, for in my lifetime, I was able to brush with giants … and they welcomed me into their presence.