Owens values chance of a lifetime to pen WBU history book

PLAINVIEW – If Dr. Estelle Owens looks a bit more tired than usual these days, she wouldn’t be surprised. After all, long hours, long nights and long stretches of highway can wear on a person. But she’s quick to admit it’s a labor of love.

When approached a few years back to research and compile Wayland Baptist University’s complete history for its centennial celebration, Owens jumped at the chance. She won’t deny that the work has been tedious at times and the majority of her free time has been swallowed up with the process, but she’s also had the experience of a lifetime.

“I am so thrilled to get to be the one who gets to put the words on paper,” said Owens, professor of history at WBU, chair of the Division of Social Sciences. “I know there are others who could do it well and love it, but not more than me.”

As a 1971 Wayland graduate, Owens has a special place in her heart for the university she’s called her workplace since 1974. And while teaching students is a particular passion – students for decades have bragged on her exciting and enlivened lectures about historical events – rolling up her sleeves and digging through history is also a great love.

Officially, Owens began her work on the history book in the fall of 2005, culling the present archives to locate what the university already had in place and what needed to be added. Granted an extended sabbatical for Spring and Summer 2006, Owens spent those eight months in discovery mode, looking through old newspapers and periodicals, traveling for oral history interviews and making countless copies.

If you ask her, though, Owens claims the work actually began decades ago in her early days on the faculty. In 1976, Dr. Gwin Morris, then chair of the social sciences division, had some extra travel money and sent Owens to California for a personal interview with former president Dr. Bill Marshall.

“I spent a week there, and we did 12-14 interviews, one in his convertible,” Owens recalls. “We talked about his life, his travels, his time at Wayland and his two years in the jungles of Brazil.”

That first set of presidential history interviews has morphed into a series, and Owens has also interviewed Dr. Roy McClung, Dr. A. Hope Owen, Dr. and Mrs. David Jester and the wife of Dr. Glenn Barnett, who served as interim from 1987-89. Not finding much from the first four presidents, Owens made them her first target, noting, “I’m really fascinated with the early years.” She still lacks oral histories for Dr. Wallace Davis, Dr. Lanny Hall and Dr. Paul Armes, Wayland’s current president.

Though not all of Wayland’s history involves happenings in the presidential suite, Owens noted that filling in the blanks of the presidents provides a backbone to the overall historical picture. Many of the key decisions in Wayland’s history came through its leadership, and diving into the lives of the presidents helps set the stage for why those decisions were made.

Through her voyage of discovery, Owens has come to appreciate the men who served in Wayland’s highest office a little more. And she’s learned that the axiom of “It’s a small world” definitely holds true with WBU.

“With all these people, there has been a willingness to give way beyond the point where it hurts, and not just money either. Some of them had fragile health, but they just sucked it up and kept going,” she said. “Another impressive thing is how many ties there were between people, and some presidents shared ties to churches they had pastored.

“It’s such a tiny world when you get right down to it. There is such symmetry to our past.”

The majority of Owens’ fact-finding mission has involved poring over old issues of the Baptist Standard (the newsmagazine of Texas Baptists), the Trail Blazer and the Plainview Daily Herald among others. Much of that, she notes with bleary eyes, was done via microfilm. After 10-hour stretches of searching, Owens admits she left the Mabee Learning Resources Center a bit weary.

Luckily for future researchers, Owens made photocopies of everything she found so the tedious microfilm searches would not have to be repeated. She estimates that she’s added at least 20,000 pages to the archives from her searches. Other items were gleaned from archive files of old catalogs, letters, speeches, diaries and journals and other papers, stored away in boxes in the basement of the LRC.

Among her summer travels, Owens visited Waco, poring through archives from Baylor University – where many former presidents earned their education – and visited the archives of both Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. and Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. She also spent much time with the Southern Baptist Convention archives in Nashville and those of the Baptist General Convention of Texas in Dallas, along with other state Baptist papers and records.

“It takes being a bloodhound and a genealogist,” Owens said of the searching. “It’s amazing when you have experience with genealogy what you can find through family research.”

Though she still has stacks of papers to read and files to peruse, Owens said the journey has been enjoyable as she’s learned so much more about the university she calls Alma Mater as well as its people. She’s even more convinced of God’s hand on the university as she reads of other schools that closed their doors over the decades.

“I’m awe inspired when I see what these folks were willing to do to get their education, and our students now are willing to do it as well,” she said. “It is so obvious when you get into it that this is providential. God wants us here and He wants us out where we are.

“It’s incredible that a little school on the Plains of Texas could have the kind of awesome impact on so many people. The Wayland imprint is there on lots of people.”