WBU Historian writing her final chapter at Wayland

PLAINVIEW – As the saying goes, if you drop your pen you might as well drop the course. The simple reasoning was that in the time it took to locate and retrieve the pen, you would have missed too much material to make it worth your while to try and catch up.
Covering material quickly has been a definitive trait of Dr. Estelle Owens who taught her first college history class while completing her doctoral coursework at Auburn. Her fast-paced style served her well throughout the years, but it didn’t necessarily start out that way.

“I had prepped and prepped and prepped and prepped and I thought, ‘Oh, I have plenty of material here. This will buy me about two weeks and I can keep working,’” Owens said about her first teaching experience. “Well, I shot through all of that material in about 15 minutes.”

While her first class didn’t go quite like she had planned, it was still a positive experience for the young doctoral student. It was on that day that Dr. Owens discovered what she was going to do with the rest of her life.

“The very first day, I walked into class. There were 30 young people out there all looking anxious and a little fearful. Before I even had a chance to introduce myself, what felt like a very, very bright light shined right in my eyes and the literal voice of God said, ‘Pay attention, Owens, this is what I want you to do,’” she said.

Dr. Owens has answered God’s call on her life, teaching history with a flair for the humorous that made the subject matter interesting, if not entertaining. But after 41 years in the classroom, Dr. Owens is writing the final chapter of her teaching career as she retires June 30.

Coming to Wayland

Dr. Owens grew up in Jasper, TX, nearly 600 miles from Plainview. Her older sister, Mary, was two years ahead of her in school, although they were separated in age by only 13 months. As Mary was approaching graduation, she began researching colleges and universities with little sister’s anxious anticipation.

“We wanted to go to Baylor,” Owens said. “But my parents didn’t have that kind of money and weren’t going to have that kind of money because they had three children (a brother) in college in four years and that’s a killer for anybody.”

The music minister at their church was a Wayland graduate, and one of their older friends had come to Wayland to try and play basketball for the Flying Queens.

“She’d come home for visits and just tell us all about it,” Owens said. “It sounded really intriguing and one of the most beautiful things about Wayland was that it was 600 miles from home.”

In February of 1965, Owens’ parents drove her and her sister to Plainview to visit the campus. Owens said it didn’t take long for them to decide Wayland was the school for them. When they arrived, Gates Hall was sitting atop a little rise on the Texas Plains, shrouded in a blanket of snow.

“(Mary) looked at me. I looked at her as we sat there in the back seat and said, this is the place,” Owens said. “That was a conviction from the time I was a sophomore in high school -- that I was coming to Wayland.”

Life Changing Events

As with many freshmen Dr. Owens began to find herself and find her voice during her freshman year in 1967. She was not a fan of freshman orientation, to say the least, and she wasn’t going to participate in it.

“It was humiliating,” she said. “It gave people who wanted it a chance to be incredibly rude. The first time an upperclassman called me stupid and meant it, I was really taken aback. Nobody had ever called me stupid and meant it.”

Dr. Owens decided that she would not participate in freshman orientation and refused to be part of the humiliating, belittling treatment -- a decision that would cause some consternation among her fellow freshmen. Two of her classmates called her out and berated her for being an embarrassment to the entire class. They told her she would never amount to anything and that she should leave Wayland immediately.

“When I had dried my tears over that one, it really made me mad,” she said. “I think that fire in the gut that they generated without intending to was a life-altering moment for me.”

Owens won the Outstanding Freshman Award that year.

That wasn’t the only event that helped shape Owens’ future, however. The other came in the classroom as she took a zoology course during her freshman year. Dr. J. Hoyt Bowers was in charge, and he had the reputation of really testing his students.

“He scared the wax out of me and out of everybody else. The man did not suffer fools and he would let you know when you had stepped out of line in some way,” Owens said. “Dr. Bowers is one of the finest teachers I ever had.”

Owens was lucky to have an older sister who encouraged her to take copious amounts of notes in Dr. Bowers’ class. Still, as a shy freshman she “kept a low profile.” But when it came to the lab practical exam, she could hide no longer. Owens aced the exam to the surprise of Bowers who was used to having only biology majors ace the practicals. He tried to talk her into becoming a science major, but the historian would have nothing of it.

“That was a great experience for me because it was the hardest B I ever earned,” she said. “You come out of high school just convinced you are the cock of the walk -- just pretty darn smart. That first college class needs to disabuse you of that idea so that you get into the habit of studying.”

A habit she has continued throughout her adult life.

Professor Owens

Dr. Owens was completing her doctoral coursework at Auburn in 1974, preparing to move into the research and dissertation phase of her degree program when she was contacted by Dr. Gwin Morris, offering her a teaching position at Wayland.

Morris, who currently serves Wayland on the Board of Trustees, was a history teacher when Owens was an undergrad. The two quickly developed a mentor/mentee relationship that blossomed into friendship. A doctoral students without a job, Owens jumped at the chance to teach history under Morris.

“If that call had been a button hook in the well water, it could not have been clearer,” she said. “And for 41 years it has been clear.”

Much of her early work load included teaching in Lubbock with students who were older than she was and all carried guns. The Law Enforcement Education Program had just been funded by the federal government and Wayland was offering classes to law enforcement personnel in the basement of the courthouse. Not only did every student carry a gun as required by their department regulations, but they also seemed to Owens, to be smokers.

“Fortunately for me it was never a smoking gun,” Owens quipped.

Still, it was in those early classes that she discovered the bond that was built between students and their professors who cared for them.

Dr. Owens was teaching class one night and it was “snowing to beat the band.” As class dismissed, Owens made the slow trek back to Plainview. When she returned to class the next week, two of her students, who were Department of Public Safety officers, mentioned that she lived in a very nice apartment complex. Owens discovered that they had followed her home in the snow storm to make sure she arrived safely.

“I thought, Wow! That’s pretty awesome,” she said. “I had students who were very concerned about me because they recognized the kid just off the turnip truck.”

Working with students

Dr. Owens could probably write a book full of student stories. Many were wonderful, positive experience. Some were not. And others could leave a person scratching her head.

One female student actually questioned Dr. Owens’ authority as a professor, saying she had no right to be teaching a college class because she was not married. She should be home, “scrubbing the kitchen floor and caring for my aged parents.” When asked if her parents knew where she was and what she was doing, Owens responded that they absolutely knew what she was doing and they were very proud of her.

“But that was the expectation,” she said. “What women do is get married. What men do is make a living. Women have babies. Women keep house. Women don’t teach at the university level.”

The fact is, Owens did have a special man in her life, but he “walked off into the sunset with somebody else,” teaching her a valuable lesson.

“When the great disappointments come, you man up, you pray it through or you fold,” she said. “There are no other choices.”

That student eventually left Wayland, but not before she had shared her dream of marrying and having eight children.

Other student stories weren’t quite so dramatic. Sometimes it was just about finding the right way to communicate in order to make a point. In one particular class, discussing how difficult it was for a great many people to earn a living in the American West, Dr. Owens was trying to find a way to impress upon students the prevalence of prostitution without offending anyone.

“How do I explain this on a Baptist campus so they understand it, but it doesn’t embarrass anybody?” she asked herself.

She started out by referring to the many women who made their living as “princesses of the pavement.”

“About half the class got that … the little twittering that goes on,” Owens said.

However, one male student didn’t seem to follow her nuanced metaphors. So Owens tried another term that once again fell on deaf ears, perhaps lost in translation or simply a case of one not having been exposed to such bawdy, east-Texas terminology.
“You know, we have a great many euphemisms for this,” Owens said. “I went through about 20 phrases. I finally just gave up and said, ‘It’s a whorehouse!’”

The student finally understood, but not before Owens had exhausted every intent to communicate the idea in moderately less offensive terminology.
“But on the other hand,” she said, “it was really good that he had no clue what that was.”

Spending her retirement

While a book of student stories would be an interesting endeavor, Dr. Owens first order of business in retirement will be a book of another kind – the Wayland history book. Owens was tasked by the university to write an official, un-abridged, “warts-and-all” history of the university that will expose the good, the bad and the ugly. Much of her early research was used for the coffee table book, “The Wayland Century” that was published in conjunction with the university’s centennial celebration in 2008. Since then, the research documents have been piling up in Owens’ house.

“I think in every room of my house, except maybe the bathrooms, I have stuff on this book,” she said. “I have to get it all shifted into the great room.”

Owens said she still has holes in her research and she hopes to plug those by spending plenty of time at microfiche readers in various libraries. Her desire to retire and complete the book was influenced in part by the death of her sister. Mary Sharpe retired at the age of 66 with plans of how she would be spending her free time. It was only six months later that she passed away.

“I don’t think I had ever really come face-to-face with the reality that none of us knows how long we are going to be this side of glory,” she said.

Owens said there will definitely be some good and some bad in the history book as the human side of Wayland led to poor decision in some instances. But there is plenty of good as well, as the human spirit brought Wayland through some very tough times. For someone who has had a front-row seat for the past 41 years, her favorite chapter to write will be that of Dr. Glenn Barnett, who was interim president from 1987-89. He was responsible for saving the university at a very difficult time.

“Dr. Barnett was a literal answer to prayer … an awful lot of peoples’ prayers,” Owens said.

Not only will Owens focus on completing the history book, but she hopes to do some traveling. She wants to visit Australia and New Zealand, two places she hasn’t been. Then she hopes for return trips to Great Britain.

And she is going to rest. Owens once said in an interview that was included in Wayland’s centennial video, that if you no longer have a passion for students and a passion for teaching, then it’s time to “go sell shoes or something.”

“When you can’t roll out of bed every morning excited about going to class and seeing what’s going to come out of students’ mouths, when it’s physically difficult to do that, then it’s time to pack it in before you start doing damage,” she said.
“I know it’s going to be tough and I’m going to have some mornings sitting out on my deck sipping that second pot of tea thinking, what have you done? This was a big mistake,” she said. “Then I’ll start that third pot and mellow out, and everything will be fine.”
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