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LeRoy D. Owens: father, husband, educator, idealist, author, futurist, entertainer, politician, humanitarian. He is missed.
LeRoy died unexpectedly in Ashland on Saturday, February 21, 2009.
He was born in Harrison, Nebraska March 7, 1934 to Paul L. Owens and Grace E. Wesely. The family moved to Boise, Idaho during the dust-bowl years of the great depression.
LeRoy graduated from Boise High School and went on to the University of Idaho and married Mary Jo Roberts in 1953. LeRoy worked as a railroad gandy dancer, tail sawyer, milk delivery and warehouseman while getting his education. After graduation he spent two years on active duty as an army officer and another 10 years in the active reserves. He served as teacher, coach and vice principal at South Junior High School in Boise. During this time he completed his masters degree in education from the University of Idaho.
In 1963 LeRoy, Mary Jo and their four children moved to Eugene, Oregon where LeRoy was vice-principal at Wilson Junior High. He was involved in innovative programs for troubled youth and founded Mobilab, the first video inservice training project for teachers using video technology.
In 1970 he was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives from Lane County in a hotly contested contest with well-known track coach Bill Bowerman. His bright Euclid green voter information campaign bus was a well-known sight in the county. He served in the 1971-73 legislative session and was co-sponsor of landmark bills such as the Bottle Bill and the Bicycle Bill.
He earned his Doctorate of Education from the University of Oregon in 1973 while teaching practical politics and future studies and later served as assistant to the Dean of the School of Education.
His family joined him in American Samoa where he was a technical advisor to the Community College of Am. Samoa and the Department of Education.
They moved from the South Pacific to the Arctic in 1976 where LeRoy worked in education administration, serving as superintendent of the Aleutian Region and consulting to districts from Bethel to Barrow. After retiring from the public school system he taught education and future studies at the University of Alaska.
In 1992 LeRoy and Mary Jo moved to Ashland, Oregon. Although he had not been in a singing group since college LeRoy joined the Siskiyou Singers, Peace Choir, and became well-known for his Paul Robeson memorial programs he performed as far away as Chicago and Ottawa, Canada.
He was active in Lithia Springs Rotary Club, United Nations Association, World Future Society, NAMI and Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship among many others.
He will be greatly missed by his family, friends and community for his generosity and compassionate spirit.
He is survived by his wife Mary Jo, children David, Diane, Douglas and Daniel, brother Kaye Don, sister Carol, and granddaughters Jessica, Alyssa and Lauren.
He was preceded in death by his parents, twin brother Raymond and sister Mary Moorhead.
A celebration of his life will be held at the Unitarian Center at 4th and C streets in Ashland at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 7.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 87 Fourth St, Ashland OR 97520 or Rotary Club of Ashland, Lithia Springs Foundation , 399 Guthrie St, Ashland OR 97520.
Deep stillness past the edge of soul — I'm not ready — yet
The wearing wash of time is working on my will — and
I shall finally go . . .
Written by LeRoy Owens, March 1995
Some of LeRoy's programs and writings are here
Following is the Eulogy read by son David at Dad's funeral to a full house at the RVUUF,
March 7, 2009, LeRoy's 75th birthday.
LeRoy loved being among people and he loves this celebration among friends, even if only in spirit.
In his determination to let each person believe and pray as they wished, LeRoy would invoke a “Moment of Silence” before a special meal or in place of an invocation.
Please excuse our moments of silence as the emotion of the moment overwhelms the spirit.
Father, husband, friend.
Family, community, country, world.
Ideas, philosophy, action.
Idealist, leader, futurist, humanitarian.
LeRoy explored many roads and shared them generously with us all.
His beginnings were as uniquely American as imaginable.
LeRoy was born to Paul and Grace Owens in Harrison, Nebraska in 1934 during the great depression.
The dust bowl years.
Five years without a crop.
No grass, cattle too thin to eat, thirsty earth.
The windmill Paul built turned uselessly.
The only thing Paul and Grace could grow were boys..
When later Paul was asked how his children turned out so well, he replied, “They had a good mother.”
Without money for seminary aspirations, his father Paul sold what he could and came up with enough cash to go to auction school. The family loaded up and headed west, landing in Boise, Idaho where Paul founded the community auction, which continues today.
All five children worked at the auction.
And they realized it was honest -- but hard and often grubby work.
So all five Children decided to pursue advanced university degrees and establish professions. It should be mentioned that hunting through 2nd hand stores and antique shops still remained life-long hobbies.
And a line that still is repeated in our minds, “A quarter bid- a half, now 75, now who’ll bid a dollar?”
Growing up in Boise in the 40s was a time of optimism and challenge. World War II came a long. Paul joined the army and went to the Philippines. Grace and the children worked to survive and support the war effort.
After the War came new opportunities. A new sale yard. Eagle Scouts, the Methodist Church Youth Group. Best dressed cadet. LeRoy grew to 6-feet four-inches on good home cooking. Some of you may have read Grace’s book ‘Foods and Goodies the Grandkids loved.” Her kids loved them too. They had a good mother.
LeRoy met Mary Jo Roberts in high school. They were inseparable. LeRoy tried to study alone at the University of Idaho, but to no avail. His old Model A kept making runs between Moscow and Boise. To save on gas and tires they decided to get married. LeRoy had a car and Mary Jo had $100 dollars.
LeRoy was 19, and Mary Jo was 17. Mom likes to remind us that she was “almost 18!”
LeRoy liked to tell how he worked as a gandy dancer on the railroad, tail sawyer at the lumber mill and delivered milk in the wee hours while he pursued his education. The milk delivery van had a real low gear and LeRoy would set the truck creeping up the hill on its own as he ran side to side carrying glass milk bottles to each home.
LeRoy served two years active duty as an officer in the Army after his bachelor’s degree and followed it with 10 years as an officer making captain in the active reserves. Somewhere along the way he realized that war was not a good idea, and though he was very adept at solving military challenges, he did not like the idea that his special forces unit would be going to Vietnam to perpetuate a war.
It was time to retire and carry the flag for peace.
Before they left Boise in 1963 they had four children, David, Diane, Douglas and Daniel. They became Unitarian Universalists. Leroy was teacher, coach and vice-principal. Eugene, Oregon called LeRoy to serve as a junior high vice-principal and he quickly got involved in as many civic groups and opportunities as he could handle.
Lane County Youth Study Project. The Council on Aging. The Skinner’s Butte Plan. And he still found time to coach his boys school basketball teams.
LeRoy founded Mobilab, an original in-service teacher training program that used a new technology -- portable video equipment. Teachers and classes were filmed in action for later replay analysis assessing what did and did not work in the classroom. LeRoy was a rising star in education circles.
Home life was warm and rich. Big Daddy LeRoy liked to tell stories and recount adventures for children and adults. LeRoy could play the piano by ear so he could sing along. Sometimes he rigged a harmonica around his neck with a coat hanger wire so he could play both piano and harmonica at the same. He was always innovative.
He loved to tell campfire stories and sing songs like, “You are my Sunshine,” “Waltzing Matilda,” “Put your arms around me, honey,” (hold me tight!) “Danny Boy” and many others.
Every holiday LeRoy would recite a poem from his childhood, “The Revolving Christmas Tree,” (performed right here last holiday season at the Yankee Doodle fundraising Dinner.)
“The time was mid-December, Christmas cheer was in the air, and Fulton Whitney Singer, sat thoughtful in his chair…
( a moment of silence)
It can be done, somehow!”
Idealistic, optimistic and wanting to make the world a better place for his family and future generations, Leroy heard another calling. The world outlook was uncertain -- pollution, population, the Vietnam War, civil rights.
Oregon Senator Wayne Morse encouraged him to get into politics because we needed more idealists like LeRoy to get things done right.
So LeRoy got a bus and was running for State Legislature.
An old yellow school bus that ran -- some of the time.
Family and volunteers painted it bright Euclid green.
Copious amounts of duct tape covered up holes and rust and the bright yellow-green exterior made sure it was noticed. “Voter Information” was painted across the top, posters of LeRoy covered the sides and it was filled with literature of issues and candidates of all parties..
A dream. No income, no health insurance and a wife and four kids who had no choice but to jump on the bus and join the campaign.
His opponent was well-known track Coach Bill Bowerman, a man not used to losing. It was one of the closest races in Lane County and real test of ideology.
That old bus ran up and down the county. You couldn’t miss it. Shopping malls, fairs, parades. Sometimes it made it under its own power. Sometimes it overheated and by-standers joined to push the bus through the parade.
One time it stalled in from of the media booth and he was accused of orchestrating the stop for publicity. But no, it always broke down!
It was a real grass roots campaign. The slogan was “Call LeRoy.” And he talked to everyone, and talked and talked. In cafes, on the street, on the phone. And he built support and momentum.
The bus could not be stopped, even as the engine gave out -- over and over.
The 1971-73 Oregon Legislature achieved many landmark policies. Leroy co-sponsored the “Oregon Bottle Bill” that was the model for other states to follow, and the “Bicycle Bill” that lead to the establishment of bike trails and right-of-ways. One battle he liked to recount was how he and Governor Tom McCall matched wits down in the governor’s basement over the fate of Camp Adair. Gov. McCall had agreed to give it to a private university for their business, but LeRoy and a growing number of grassroots supporters thought it ought to be given to the citizens of Oregon. As they hunched over under the low ceiling in the Governor’s basement (Gov Tom McCall was over 6’4” too!) McCall confided that he was changing his stance and that Camp Adair would be saved for public use and later became a site for low income housing.
(Educator and futurist)
LeRoy went on to more involvements in the community, through the University of Oregon Education department, future studies and a host of local boards and activities.
He earned his Doctorate of Education from the University of Oregon in 1973 while teaching practical politics and future studies, and later served as assistant to the Dean of the School of Education. Where to next?
(The South Pacific)
In 1976 LeRoy took a job for the Northwest Regional Education Labs to work with the Department of Education and the Community College of American Samoa. He took his wife Mary Jo and four kids to the South Pacific to live in Samoa.
We lived in a village called Avaio by Two Dollar Beach.
He was called Leloi and was often seen during the evenings in a big green lavalava (cloth skirt) sitting on a fallen palm tree log on the beach enjoying the sunset.
Douglas and Daniel attended Faga'itua High School. Diane explored the island by bicycle. I worked for the Samoa News.
For a palagi, (white guy) Leroy was a pretty good islander. He was big and had just enough belly to be taken seriously as a big chief. The graciousness of the Samoan people made a strong impression on the family and the fa'a samoa was a life in beauty.
(North to Alaska)
What could top the paradise of the South Seas?
They moved from the South Pacific to the North Arctic in 1976.
LeRoy worked in education administration, serving as superintendent of Dillingham and Aleutian Region Schools. He also consulted in districts from Bethel to Barrow. Despite his stomach’s refusal to fly calmly, LeRoy flew allover the state in bush planes, float planes and a Grumman Goose -- to reach his schools and students.
LeRoy thrived on the people and the challenges. He became known in the Alaskan bush as “Dillingham Dutch,” the man with the harmonica, and he played for many on a cold night.
After retiring from the public school system LeRoy took a 20,000-mile journey across North America with Daniel and wrote a book titled. “Searching for Blowtorches.” He left several hundred of them for us to enjoy.
He finished his Alaskan era teaching education and future studies at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.
(The Ashland Connection)
In 1992 LeRoy and Mary Jo moved to Ashland, Oregon.
Although he had not been in a singing group since college,
LeRoy joined the Siskiyou Singers, Extended Circle, the Peace Choir and took voice lessons from Dave Marston. His deep voice resonated with people and soon
he began a singing career. He was most noted for his Paul Robeson commemorative programs where he sang bass and recited words from one of our forgotten heroes.
His first Robeson program was March 8, 1998 in this church.
His voice boomed as far away as Chicago and Ottawa, Canada.
He was active in Lithia Springs Rotary Club, United Nations Association, Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and NAMI among others.
He will be greatly missed for his commitment, generosity and compassionate spirit towards all.
For LeRoy, eternity is lived through us, through the memories and kindnesses we carry forward. Thanks, Dad for being with us still.