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A Farewell to Ken Owen
Ken Owen finishes his last semester at the school that groomed him. A victim of the modern higher-ed disaster unfolding before us, I would feel better if I could find someone to blame. The trouble is, I can't.
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We’ve all been savaged by circumstance. At some point or another, collateral damage calls our name. So, when that happens, we take our place in line, wait for our turn, and we take one in the jaw…or the pocketbook…or the soul. All in the name of someone else’s fuck-up. Someone else’s hubris.
Ken Owen is in the front of that line right now. He’ll never admit this, of course. Not once. Ken Owen's* not one of those guys who complains. If he is, he keeps it after hours among the closest of friends. And there—behind those closed doors—I have no doubt that his biting, brilliant sarcasm probably makes his take on the world beautifully entertaining. In another world, Ken Owen could have become the Hoosier state’s own H.L. Mencken. He still can be. He probably should be. I hope that he will be.
*The full name repetitions are deliberate.
But right now, Ken Owen is taking that aforementioned lob the chin…and in the heart…and most definitely in the soul. For almost two decades, he’s been working at his Alma-mater, DePauw University. He’s held a few different posts and titles—right now he’s the Special Advisor to the President—but what he has always been is the school’s biggest cheerleader.
The Disciplined Storyteller
For example: every day (and if not “every” day, then almost every day) Ken Owen has been systematically culling DePauw’s history and penning it for the university website in the form of “contemporary news filings.” When dozens of DPU men left school to join Union forces in the Civil War, Ken Owen closed his eyes, went back to 1861, and covered it as it happened. The groundbreaking for Bowman Gym? He went there. And Bowman’s demolition? Yeah, he went there, too.
Every day—and I mean every day—Ken Owen reminded all of us that DePauw University is a unique and special place. Unlike a lot of folks, hired by colleges and universities to don the colors and sing the fight songs, Ken Owen’s loyalty wasn’t contractual. Hell, he didn’t even want the job when then president Robert Bottoms offered it to him. But Fate—the same goddess that would eventually let him have it—welcomed him to his adopted home.
This Matters to Me
I am not a DePauw alumnus. I unhesitatingly and proudly attach my loyalties to a mid-major state school in Terre Haute. But I am what the folks at DePauw call “a townie.” I moved to this town about the same time Ken Owen went back to work for DPU. Furthermore, my de-facto* step-daughter starts her senior year at DePauw on Wednesday. So, I’m invested. DePauw’s health—social and financial—matters. But when I think of DePauw’s health, I think of Ken Owen’s exit. And when I think of Ken Owen’s exit, I get angry.
*Her mother and I are engaged, but we've all agreed to use "legal" terms.
I don’t know where to channel my frustration. A lot of factors—local, national, and global—played in a part in the abysmal enrollment numbers now arriving on campus this weekend. You can’t pin that mess solely on one circumstance or catastrophe.
Ken Owen gave his Alma mater everything he had, and then he opened his bag of grit and gave the Tigers some more.
Too Many to Blame
Figuring out who or what to blame quickly becomes one of those pointless “bar corner conversations.” Who do you blame? Angry rich kids who are pissed off because they can’t get drunk at will anymore? McCoy? Brian Casey, McCoy’s smug, awful predecessor*? National tuition trends? The Jenna Fischer fiasco? Plumbers who “college-shame” on Facebook? Everyone has a theory, and everyone’s an expert.
*A lot of folks really liked this guy. After an encounter in Kroger, I opted to pass on the hero-worship.
It’s hard to figure out who deserves the screaming. The schools who tried to keep their spending low and just “let the grass grow” are in the same trouble as the ones who bought into the recruiting arms race* that has them overspending like a California teacher in a gated neighborhood. Knowing that the pool of available kiddos is going to shrink doesn’t help, either. More blood will flow. Maybe not at DePauw, but few doubt that several D-III athletic conferences will looking at dramatic realignment in the future.
*When I went to college, I was happy to be there, and I was happy to pay for it. We never complained about the food or the rooms. Somewhere along the way the dorm had to become a Marriott, and the dining hall had to become a Fogo de Chao.
For right now, though Ken Owen gets up every morning, drives from his home near Indy to his office in Greencastle, and goes to work. And the work he puts out remains phenomenal. He continues to celebrate the history, the tradition, the excellence that is DePauw. Every alumnus earning a corporate promotion, or a government appointment…he shares their efforts with pride. Every Brett Baer headline, and every Lee Hamilton column… He revels in those, too. Each day, I thumb through my feed, and Ken Owen is there reminding me that even though I never attended a class on that campus, I am blessed because it sits in the shadow of my adopted home town.
Part of a Larger Story
The story of Ken Owen is also a story of forces much larger than Ken Owen. It's a story of the limits and realities of loyalty in America's economy. Ask Bruce Kopp, formerly of WTHR. Ask the countless workers at GM's Lordstown facility, or even all the folks forced out when IBM left Greencastle in the 1980's. Fealty is wonderful, but it does not inoculate us from the axe.
Young, hyper, tech-savvy entrepreneurs may be loving this disruptive moment in history, but a lot of us who bothered to sit down in our 20's and envision our lives in our 50's are not quite as fond of all this lightening-bolt change. Sure, we dig it when we can swap out a taxi for an Uber, but when that exchange puts us in the cross-hairs, our enthusiasm vanishes. At 50-years-old myself, I am definitely inspired by Ken Owen's courage. But I'm equally worried that his story is not unique or isolated. The best and worst of times, indeed.
Better Than the Rest of Us
A couple of years ago, I was writing for my own Alma mater. Like Ken Owen, I loved it. Something about stepping onto the campus that cemented the fibers of my life never leaves the DNA. I don’t write for them anymore, however. The new president arrived, and she didn’t much like a piece I wrote about her. Poof! That was it. I’ve mulled over every petty form of “revenge” I could think of: putting away my Sycamore flag, cancelling my ISU license plate, staying away from the ball games. When the rage is coursing through you, all those dumb ideas have a way of feeling stupidly glorious.
If Ken Owen has felt the same way, he has never shown it. Never. Not once. And that matters. Because feeling angry about bad luck is like feeling embarrassed about getting pulled over for speeding, or feeling ashamed for saying the wrong joke at a birthday party, or feeling self-conscious after tripping on a busy sidewalk. That shit happens to all of us.
Nonetheless, Ken Owen gave his Alma mater everything he had, and then he opened his bag of grit and gave the Tigers some more. Considering all the people Ken Owen has been showcasing--all those great people his little school has sent off into the world--I’d just like to take this moment to remind everyone that Ken Owen is the one of the best DePauw ever produced.
Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.