While dropping the name of William A. Owens in a column last week, I thought again about the incredible number of celebrities who once lived in Baytown. The former English teacher at Robert E. Lee High School never gained the name recognition of, say, a rock star or major film actor, but in the literary/academic realm, Owens was a true celebrity, especially as a folklorist and transcriber of history.
I’ve written columns about him before, and most recently mentioned the fact that he authored “Three Friends,” a book about J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb and Roy Bedichek.
Owens’ best friend in Baytown was Walter Rundell, who, as head of the English department, recruited him to teach at REL in the late 1930s.
A retired Columbia University professor, Owens died at his home in Nyack, NY, in 1990. Rundell recalled Owens telling him, “I just can’t believe an ol’ country boy like me lives in the same neighborhood with Helen Hayes.” (Actually, they were close neighbors and friends. Owens lived next door to the Broadway star and film actress.)
I first wrote about Owens after spotting his name in The Baytown Sun archives on microfilm. Owens was visiting friends in Baytown, according to the news item. His name was familiar because I had read “Three Friends.”
Curious to learn more about Owens and his work, I checked out his books at Sterling Municipal Library. I knew that Dean Rundell taught English at REL in the 1930s and wondered whether Owens taught there at the same time. So I phoned Rundell, and his answer to my first question was: “I guess I probably knew Bill better than anyone in Baytown.”
Rundell talked from his home in Austin where he and wife Olive had moved after he retired as dean of Lee College. Coincidentally I made the call a few months after Owens had paid the Rundells a visit.
Recalling he had reviewed one of Owens’ earlier books, “Slave Mutiny,” in the Houston Chronicle, Rundell asked Owens if he remembered that. “Remember it! I still have the clipping,” Owens said.
“Slave Mutiny” -- seven years after Owens’ death -- inspired a Steven Spielberg film, “Amistad.”
Owens also became a good friend of the Rundells’ son, Dr. Walter Rundell Jr., an author and professor. In acknowledgements for his book, “Early Texas Oil,” Rundell Jr. wrote: “I have been indebted to William A. Owens not only for his help with this project but also for his interest in many others.”
After my first column appeared about Owens, I contacted Mary Burkett, a writer and former REL English teacher. Although she didn’t teach at REL until after he left, Burkett corresponded with him through the years, seeking advice about writing.
Members of the REL class of 1937 invited Owens to their 50-year reunion. With regret, he replied that he could not attend, but he sent “greetings to one and all. First, to a boy named John whom I shook in his seat till his teeth rattled and who after the war greeted me at the Night Hawk in Austin.”
In his note to the class of ’37, Owens recalled an incident in the Army in World War II when he discovered an emergency power station in New Guinea. “Suddenly the world was all right for me,” he wrote. “A sign stood out in the glow: Goose Creek Texas, Power and Light. My love to the one who put it there.”
Wanda Orton is a retired managing editor of The Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com, Attention: Wanda Orton.