He only taught at UC Davis for two years, but his suicide left a huge personal and professional void among those who knew him or looked forward to knowing him.
The 500-seat Wright Hall on campus was nearly full Monday afternoon Oct. 14, 2002, when a memorial service for Louis D. Owens, 54, professor of English and Native American studies, got under way.
Owens, who was part Choctaw, part Cherokee and part Irish, earned his Ph.D. in English at UC Davis in 1981. After establishing himself as an internationally prominent scholar of American and Native American literature, an essayist and novelist, he returned to join the English department faculty in 2000. He taught both English and Native American studies. He shot himself in Albuquerque on July 25, 2002.
He left his wife, Polly, and two teen-age daughters, Elizabeth and Alexandra. They live in Tijeras, N.M. Additional survivors include three brothers, four sisters and his father.
Owens' early life resembled a Steinbeck novel. It was no particular surprise, therefore, that he became a Steinbeck scholar. Born in Lompoc to migrant laborers, Owens spent his childhood moving between Mississippi and the Central Valley, picking row crops, living in poverty.
Of the many kids in the Owens family, Louis and his brother, Gene, were the only two who completed high school and Louis was the only one to go to college.
Last May, he was featured in a lengthy interview on CSPAN about his Steinbeck scholarship during the centennial celebration of the Salinas Valley writer.
Owens also was the author of five novels, one of which, "Nightland," won the American Book Award in 1997.
The fact that Owens earned his doctorate from UCD and returned there to teach was remarkable, said English department colleague Jack Hicks, co-host of the memorial service with Ines Hernandez-Avila of Native American studies.
"Often academic departments do not hire their own; his coming back was extraordinary, by any standard," said Hicks, pointing to Owens' many accomplishments and accolades, including an invitation from Harvard University to spend a year there in 2004 as a scholar-in-residence.
"Bless you all for coming to share the weight of his passing," said Hicks to the audience.
Owens' mentor and major professor for his doctorate, UC Davis Professor Emeritus James Woodress, who spoke at the memorial, said Owens was first drawn the work of John Steinbeck, and made it the topic of his dissertation because he knew intimately the life and history of the Salinas Valley.
"I met Louis in the fall of 1977 when he began his Ph.D. program at UCD," said Woodress.
"This relationship led to a long friendship," said Woodress "I watched his increasing national and international reputation. He became a surrogate for the son I never had. I cannot think of his untimely death without weeping."
Owens earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in English from UC Santa Barbara before coming to Davis. During graduate school, Owens and his wife spent a year in Italy while Owens taught at the University of Pisa as a Fulbright Lecturer.
Later, he taught at several universities including UC Santa Cruz. Throughout his career, Owens was known for being extraordinarily prolific. Due to the number and quality of his publications, the time between his receiving his doctorate and being promoted to full professor at UC Santa Cruz was the shortest in UC history.
Owens' boyhood friend, Glen Martin, is a San Francisco Chronicle journalist. Martin wrote about his best friend's death in an Oct. 6, 2002, article in the Chronicle and came to the memorial service on Monday.
Nearly undone by tears, Martin described how they used to hunt and fish in their hometown of Atascadero, how they roomed together at UC Santa Barbara, how they worked on a trail crew with the U.S. Forest Service in Washington's North Cascades, and how they stayed in touch through the years.
Martin thanked Professor George Longfish for acknowledging the fact that many of Owens' friends are angry. Owens shot himself in his truck at the Albuquerque airport.
"It wasn't the act I would associate with a man of his heart," said Martin. "It will scar many of us for a long time."
"I'm sorry he decided it was time for him to go," added Professor Tom Colonnese of the University of Washington.
Linda Morris, former chair of the English department, said Owens was a "quiet, gentle, unassuming and serious person…who taught us a more complex understanding of race…and truly made a difference in the life of the department."
Former students Martin Woodside and Jane Haladay recalled how very generous Owens was with his time and talent.
Professor Joanne Barker of UCD's Native American studies also addressed the manner in which Owens died.
"Depression changes you," she said. "It makes the world seem unsafe. It makes those feelings seem permanent."
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