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Owens Centennial Celebration set for November

Published or Revised September 22, 2005

Paris Junior College and Texas A&M University-Commerce come together in November for the William A. Owens Centennial Celebration.

The tribute will recognize the 100th birthday of Owens, who died in 1990 in Suffern, N.Y. A Lamar County native, he was a noted author, and former Columbia University professor who attended both of these institutions.

Activities are planned Nov. 9-11 and take place on both campuses.

At PJC, the celebration coincides with the college’s homecoming and salute to World War II veterans. It includes reminiscences from Paris area residents who knew Owens, and a concert by a church choir featuring music collected by Owens in the 1930s.

“Frontier Boy,” a documentary based on Owens’ autobiographical book called “This Stubborn Soil” will be shown, and there will be a play based on one of Owens’ books.

At A&M-Commerce, the celebration honoring the nationally known folklorist, storyteller, novelist, and historian includes a panel discussion, dramatic performances, and a dinner.

“The life and works of William Owens are worthy of accolades and celebration,” said Dr. James Conrad, A&M-Commerce archivist and chairman of the committee planning the university’s events honoring Owens.

“We at Texas A&M University-Commerce are delighted to work in partnership with Paris Junior College on this celebration,” Conrad said.

“For many of us who were personally acquainted with Dr. Owens, this centennial celebration is an opportunity to remember and pay tribute to the legacy of an outstanding literary figure,” commented Dwight Chaney, dean of Academic Studies at PJC.

The events begin at 10 a.m. Nov. 9 at A&M-Commerce with a panel discussion featuring papers on Owens’ contributions to folklore, black history, creative process and Texas literature, followed that afternoon by a roundtable discussion. Those attending the roundtable discussion get to hear personal reflections from several who knew Owens.

Participants in this session include Dr. Francis Abernethy, former executive director of the Texas Folklore Society, and Dr. Charles Linck, A&M-Commerce professor emeritus of Literature and Languages.

Later that afternoon, Dr. John Hanners, head of the Department of Mass Media, Communication, and Theatre, directs a group of A&M-Commerce drama students in a performance based on one of Owens’ works.

On the evening of Nov. 9, A&M-Commerce hosts a dinner with Dr. Don Graham of the University of Texas at Austin as keynote speaker. Graham has written extensively on Hollywood, Texas literature and Texas history, and is the author of a biography on Audie Murphy, the most decorated U.S. soldier of World War II.

On Thursday, Nov. 10, the celebration moves to PJC. Activities include a luncheon, reminiscences from several who knew Owens, a concert by an African-American church choir, and a showing of “Frontier Boy.”

The day will conclude with a play based on one of Owens’ books.

On Nov. 11, PJC honors World War II veterans with a series of events, including a review of Owens’ account of his service in the Pacific during World War II.

The late William A. Owens made frequent visits to Lamar and Hunt counties in the 1970s and ‘80s, places he loved and incorporated into many of his books.

Born in 1905 in Pin Hook, a small community approximately 15 miles northeast of Paris, Owens is perhaps best remembered for his autobiographical account, “This Stubborn Soil,” which chronicles his youth as a poor farm boy.

A Distinguished Alumnus of A&M-Commerce, Owens attended the sub-college of East Texas State Teachers College, where he earned a high school diploma and elementary teaching certificate.

He then attended PJC, and in 1932, Owens completed studies at Southern Methodist University, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1933, he graduated with a Master of Arts degree from SMU and in 1941 was awarded a doctorate from the State University of Iowa.

His career in higher education included teaching at Wesley College in Greenville and Texas A&M University, serving as director of research in the Oral History project at the University of Texas at Austin, and holding a professorship at Columbia University in New York.

A World War II veteran, Owens was a member of the U.S. Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service in the Philippines.

Throughout his career, he wrote several books and numerous articles, most about Texas and Texas folklore.

Three books were autobiographical about his northeast Texas background and professional life. In addition to “This Stubborn Soil,” Owens wrote “Walking on Borrowed Land” and “A Season of Weathering.”

Also among his books is “Black Mutiny: The Revolt of the Schooner Amistad,” detailing the anti-slavery case that John Q. Adams argued before the Supreme Court in 1841. This book was used as the basis for the motion picture “Amistad.”

Owens is also remembered as an engaging storyteller.

During his career, he won several awards, including the Texas Institute of Letters, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Southwest Library Association.

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