In Memoriam: Dr. James Owens

Dr. Michael Santos, Professor of History~

In the summer of 1984, I received a call from Dr. Jim Owens, who was department chair at the time, asking if I was interested in coming down to Lynchburg to interview for the U.S. history job for which I’d applied. Of course I said yes.

I made arrangements for the flight from Pittsburgh (I was finishing my doctorate at Carnegie-Mellon University) and called Jim back with the arrival time. He said, “I’ll pick you up at the airport. Look for Santa Claus with red hair.” He wasn’t kidding.

In those early years, Jim became a mentor. He took me under his wing and encouraged me to grow. He was the big brother I never had, and like every big brother, he took pleasure in teasing me, as he did so many others.

He could be gruff; he could be jovial; he could be serious. But whatever his outward demeanor, at his core there was a kind-hearted person who cared for those around him, even when he did not always know exactly how to clearly express those feelings.

I shared an office with Jim in Carnegie in the late 1980s, and it was a case of Felix and Oscar from “The Odd Couple.” If you know either of us, you don’t need to be told who was who.

owens-jim edit

Dr. James Owens. Photo retrieved from Lynchburg College website

His half of the office was strewn with papers. No surface was safe. Desk, floor, every place was covered. But Jim had a system. Time and again, I was amazed when a student would walk in, ask about a paper or exam, and Jim would take a minute, look at his various piles, then pull the student’s assignment from the stack as neatly as I could from the organized file folders that dominated my side of the room.

That experience as Jim’s officemate speaks to me even now. Here was a man who from outward appearances was, shall we say, untidy, but who knew exactly where everything was.

To me, that serves as an apt metaphor for Jim’s character. Even when he affected the persona of the tough as nails prof, there beat the heart of a caring educator. The sometimes seemingly merciless ribbing of his friends was the way he showed his affection for them. One is tempted, when one thinks of Jim, to leap to the cliché, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Yes, but the cliché breaks down in one critical place. Let’s be honest. The guy did look like Santa Claus. Certainly more so of late with his white hair and beard than when I first met him at the Lynchburg Airport.

Jim roamed LC’s campus for 48 years, and if you got to know him, you realized that something of the heart of the Jolly Old Elf (who he so closely resembled) beat strong and true within him. I consider myself blessed to have counted him as a colleague and a friend.