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Friends recall former college president Owen
NGCSU to hold a memorial service and remember legacy today
0218owen-john owen
John Owen

It rarely took John Owen more than a minute to make up his mind.

Friends say the former president of North Georgia College & State University was the truest judge of character and a decisive and diplomatic leader who moved forward with insight and purpose.

"He'll be remembered as a visionary, somebody who knew how to get things done and had the vision and the ability to get things done," Dahlonega Mayor Gary McCullough said.

North Georgia will remember the legacy of Owen, who died Tuesday at age 88, at a memorial service today.

In his 22 years as president of the college, Owen expanded not just the school's physical bounds but forever shaped the spirit of the institution.

When Owen came to Dahlonega in 1970, the college and community had a somewhat contentious relationship, with many townspeople viewing the students and faculty as boastful. Owen committed himself to changing that by fostering connections between the community and college.

J.B. Jones, a former Lumpkin County commissioner, remembers how Owen joined the chamber of commerce and began attending every town and county meeting.

Then, he asked his faculty members to participate as well. At one time, he encouraged all of his faculty and staff to live within Lumpkin County so they could be a part of the community that surrounded their school.

"When I was commissioner there was a Ph.D. from North Georgia College on every committee," Jones said. "(Owen) believed in involvement. And it really helped us because they had expertise and we had muscle."

Moving forward with those strong connections, Owen put his effort behind countless county projects. In those successful initiatives, friends say, his impact is still being felt throughout Lumpkin County.

"Dr. Owen is really a legend at the university," current college President David Potter said. "So much happened under his watch."

He was instrumental in opening Chestatee Regional Hospital. When the county wanted to revitalize the Dahlonega downtown district, he, as president of the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber of Commerce, called on a connection at University of Georgia to conceptualize the project. He also was a strong advocate for the expansion of Ga. 400 into the county.

"He was the first economic development engine (in Dahlonega)," said John Raber, chairman of the Lumpkin County Board of Commissioners. "He was the individual that, he either got you to lead or he pulled you with him."

But Raber said it's important to note while Owen was part of countless projects, he did not meddle.

"He might have had his hands involved but his hands were open hands to help you if you needed help," he said.

Many say he wasn't afraid to call in a favor on a project he was passionate about and had connections from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. But his high-profile relationships, like his long friendship with Thomas B. Murphy, former speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, did not inflate his ego, according to his friends and family.

"He didn't care what your position in life was," said his daughter, Cathy Scheffer. "He treated you as an individual and thought everyone deserved his respect."

With his wife Margaret Owen by his side, he also poured himself into community service organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America and the Lions Club. Until recently, he attended the Cooper-Green Men's Prayer Group every Tuesday morning.

Friends say the college was his first priority. He lived on the grounds and would often wake early to walk the campus. Raber remembers a morning when he was running an overnight wrestling camp and after hearing steps in the hallway, he jumped out of bed thinking students were breaking the rules.

"I'd hear somebody walking down the hall at 5:30 and I'd think ‘God almighty,'" Raber said. "And here'd be Dr. Owen walking down the hall just checking his belongings, which was North Georgia College."