Owens, William A., 1905-1990

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Owens, William A., 1905-1990

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William A. Owens, noted folklorist, author, and educator, was born in Pin Hook, Texas on November 2, 1905, the son of Charles Owens and Jessie Ann (Chenault) Owens. He spent his childhood on the small cotton farms around tiny rural communities of Pin Hook, Novice, Faught, and Blossom. Owens was indeed a child of the poverty and hard times that had gripped the agricultural regions of the South since the Civil War and Reconstruction. These early years, were, however, tempered by the love and closeness of his family, a family that sometimes had as many as four generations living under one roof. His father had died only a few days after Owens' birth, and it was from his mother that he learned the values of hard work and self reliance. In addition, he acquired a love of reading and a desire to obtain an education beyond the one room schoolhouses of Lamar County.

In an effort to finance his education, Owens undertook numerous odd jobs as a farmer's hired hand, stock clerk, and for a short time, combination waiter and dishwasher at Dallas University. In 1924 he entered East Texas State Teachers College in Commerce. Studying long hours on his own to make up for the deficiencies in his country school education and waiting tables and picking cotton to pay his way, Owens earned a high school diploma and elementary teaching certificate. After graduation, however, there were few jobs available in country schools and Owens lacked the qualifications to teach in the larger school systems.

Owens moved to Paris, Texas and for the next few years struggled against nearly overwhelming economic hardships to continue school at the newly opened junior college. Although these were very difficult times, he never lost sight of continuing his education and becoming a teacher.

With two years of college completed and a new teaching certificate, he returned to Pin Hook to teach in the one room school he had left only five years before. After two years teaching in country schools, Owens returned to college. He attended Southern Methodist University where he received the BA degree in 1932 and the MA degree in 1933. In 1941, he received his Ph.D. from the State University of Iowa. The title of his dissertation was "Texas Folk Songs."

With the completion of the Master's degree, Owens began his profession in earnest, compiling an enviable record as an academician with legions of grateful former students. During his career Owens taught at Greenville High School in Greenville, Texas (1934-35); Wesley College in Greenville, Texas (1935-36); Mississippi State College (1936); Robert E. Lee High School in Goose Creek, Texas (1936-37); Texas A & M University (1937-40, 1941-1947); University of Texas (1946); Columbia University (1947-1974). Additionally he served as Director of Research in Folk Materials (1941) and Director of the Oral History of Texas Oil Pioneers (1952-58) at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. He also served as Director of the Summer Session (1959-1969) and Dean of the Summer Session (1969-72) at Columbia University. During World War II, Dr. Owens took leave from Texas A & M University and served with distinction as Officer in the United States Army, receiving the Legion of Merit for "meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service in Luzon, Philippines Islands" while serving with the 306th Counter Intelligence Corps Detachment.

While his career as teacher, lecturer, and administrator has been full, he is more widely known as a gifted author. In addition to numerous articles, reviews and short stories, his books serve as monuments to his craft. His works include Swing and Turn: Texas Play-Party Games (1936); Texas Folk Songs (1950, revised in 1976); Slave Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad (1953); Walking on Borrowed Land (1954); Fever in the Earth (1958); Look to the River (1963); This Stubborn Soil (1966); Three Friends: Bedichek, Dobie, Webb (1969); Tales From the Derrick Floor (with Mody C. Boatright, 1970); A Season of Weathering (1973); and A Fair and Happy Land (1975).

Dr. Owens married Ann S. Wood on December 23, 1946. Their two children are Jessie Ann and David Edward.


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