CINCINNATI -- Dr. O’dell Owens has never been afraid to speak his mind.
He gave 150 speeches per year for seven years when he was Hamilton County coroner to young people throughout the county about the problems behind the drugs and violence that took far too many lives on his watch. His platform was the higher the graduation rate, the lower the homicide rate.
Another of his important themes, he said, is the importance of the black family.
“Many of today’s problems result from a lack of good family structure for everyone,” he said during a recent interview. “Forty percent of America’s children are born outside the family. And from that, I think you see a lot of the problems that we’re seeing with drugs, teenage pregnancy and the violence. I think if you have two parents raising a family, we would have a much stronger community and a much stronger country.”
With such stalwart beliefs in the importance of family, it’s no wonder the Midwest Regional Black Family Reunion named the Owens family its 2017 Family of the Year. The event’s theme this year is “Committed and Courageous,” and the Owens family epitomizes both those ideals, said Tracey Artis, the reunion’s director.
Dr. Owens has a long history of service to the community, Artis said, from his work as a successful fertility doctor to serving as coroner, then president of Cincinnati State, Cincinnati’s interim health commissioner and now president and CEO of Interact for Health. His wife, Marchelle Owens, teaches second grade at Hays-Porter Elementary in Cincinnati's West End neighborhood.
The couple has been married for 41 years and has two grown sons and a daughter.
Christopher Owens, 39, who completed his undergraduate work at Miami University and two master’s degrees at Xavier University, is a successful salesman at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. Justin Owens, 35, has two associate’s degrees from Cincinnati State and works three jobs.
“The theme you see in our family is everybody is willing to work to get what they want,” Owens said.
Morgan Owens, 31, also has a degree from Miami. She works as a diversity and inclusion consultant for Tri-Health and also owns two businesses. They are Curvy Cardio, a fitness business focused on curvy women, and the Morgan A. Owens Brand, which helps minority women advance in their careers or pursue their own entrepreneurial dreams.
“We’re just very proud of the whole family and all they have done here in the city and continue to do,” Artis said. “They’re looking at it like, ‘what can we do to help someone else?’”
Dr. Owens and his daughter sat down with WCPO recently to talk about what the honor means to them -- and what they view as the role of the black family. Excerpts of the conversation follow.
Q: What do you think stood out about your work and your family’s work that could have helped result in this honor?
O’dell Owens: I think for me it’s that I’ve dedicated 30, 35 years toward working in the community for making life better for children. I’ve been consistent about that and the messaging that every child counts. Whether they be black, white, brown, yellow -- every child counts. For my family, the thing I’m most proud of is that they’ve grown to be adults. Never had any problem with drugs or alcohol. In today’s life, boy, that’s a real blessing because there are so many temptations out there. And now they’re involved in the community themselves. Each in their own way is giving back to the community.
Q: Can you talk about how your life started out, Dr. Owens? Your childhood was quite different from the one you and your wife provided for your children.
O’dell Owens: I was the second of seven children born to great parents. We lived in the West End. We lived in four rooms. Although it wasn’t a house, we had a home. And that’s a real distinction. A lot of love in our house. My mother died when I was 11 leaving behind seven children. Life became very, very difficult. We hit rock bottom.
I think every parent grows up wanting to provide a better life for their children and a more protective life. And hopefully that’s what I’ve done for my children -- given them a better life, a more protective life. But at the same time challenged them to be hungry for a better life, to be hungry to support themselves and to be independent. And that I think they’ve done.
Q: For you, when you hear Black Family of the Year, what does that mean for you?
O’dell Owens: The black family has been challenged. The black family is a very young family in the course of history. We’ve only been a family since 1865. Prior to 1865, blacks weren’t allowed to have a family. You were pulled apart, your children were on one plantation, husband and wife on another plantation. And the black family has had to struggle. To move from slavery to the White House -- wow, that’s a heck of a journey. So I think many of today’s problems result from a lack of good family structure for everyone.
Black Family Reunion to have this honor really says we recognize the fact you’ve held your family together. I’ve been married for 41 years. And that your children are becoming independent and contributing back to the community.
Q: Why is it important to have a Black Family Reunion to celebrate the black family?
Morgan Owens: For one, I mean it’s just a great example of positive things going on in the minority community. People don’t fully understand the experience. Everyone is invited to the Black Family Reunion, and I think that’s a great message that the Black Family Reunion gives out.
Q: What do you want other black families to take from your example?
O’dell Owens: I want to drill down past that. I want to drill down to the young men and women and say have a family. Restrain from some of your activities. Delay pregnancy. Delay doing some of the things that you’re doing until you’re prepared.
The one thing I try to stress with my children wasn’t so much, do this, do that, wait ‘til you’re this age, wait ‘til you’re that age. It was: Can you handle the consequences of your action? At 15, 18, 20, 13? If you do certain things, can you handle those consequences? If that’s the guide, they’re going to make decisions based on that. So I want young people who are hurt by not having a family -- I’ve talked to young boys who are so upset they don’t have a daddy in their family -- and the first thing I say to them is don’t become that person. You strive to have a family.
Q: What has been your message to your children over the years?
O’dell Owens: The first was to get an education. And I made sure that I worked hard enough to send them to college without the debt. I wanted to give them an opportunity to make a decision based not on debt but based on their passion. They were told as young kids that their job is school.
I have three degrees from Yale and one from Harvard. We had to be careful. I never talked about going to Yale or Harvard. They didn’t have to follow in my footsteps. I wanted them to create their own path. But that path starts with education. The path starts with giving back to the community. And it ends with being a good person at the end of the day.
Q: Tell us about your wife.
O’dell Owens: I met her on my only blind date of my life. She’s an extraordinary person, very, very dedicated to teaching. And she has taught in some of the toughest schools. Schools where she may have 20 kids and at times of the parent-teacher conferences, maybe only two parents show up. Two out of 20. Sometimes none. And yet she works hard, puts in more time than she has to, puts a lot of her own money into teaching. She’s very dedicated to that. But very dedicated to her kids. She didn’t go back to teaching until Morgan hit kindergarten.
She sacrificed the early years of her career to ensure that when her children came home, she was there for them. And she’s just a wonderful person. A very kind person. And she’s raised three great children.
Q: What was it like growing up in the Owens household? Watching your parents?
Morgan Owens: It was awesome. My parents, not only are they funny but they’re supportive. They’re very loving and very encouraging. For a long time, I thought I was the only child. I’m the baby and the only girl so I was in my own little world for a while.
Q: How did you use those lessons growing up?
Morgan Owens: I had self-esteem issues when I was younger. I went to schools that I didn’t have a lot of people that looked like me. Curvy, a little bit thicker. So I started to develop a complex about myself, even though I had all the love in the world at home. I don’t know if they even knew how hard I was on myself or how I didn’t love myself. I didn’t want to tell my parents I didn’t love myself. How heartbreaking for them. So I kind of dealt with that independently. I get emotional because I feel like now I’m able to serve others in what I do in my story and being transparent to help others. So that was always instilled in me growing up -- to help others.
Also, always, the goal is to be your own boss. Not necessarily to own your own business. But to manage yourself in a way where you’re not threatened by others or they try to demean your character or they try to take away your education. So always keep your head held up high and always be true to yourself and, like my dad said, always be a kind person. Because you never know who you might come across.
Q: What did your parents’ relationship model for you?
Morgan Owens: It set a great example that marriage is not perfect, that it’s hard work. But if there’s love there, you can get through anything. Look who I would want in a male partner -- someone like my father, who is supportive but still not intimidated by a woman’s success. My father encourages her, supports her, even in his busiest times.
Q: When you hear Morgan talking about the things that she’s doing, what goes through your head?
O’dell Owens: At times I’m just awed by Morgan. I moved (on) from when people used to wave at me and say, “Hey Dr. Owens,” to “That’s Morgan’s dad.” But what makes me the happiest isn’t her success in her business. It’s when people tell me Morgan’s a good person. I’m very fortunate. Each of my kids has different personalities and different occupations. But what binds them together is they’re good people, and they give back.
Q: So how important has your family been to you?
Morgan Owens: If I didn’t have my parents to believe in me, I don’t think I would be so successful in anything. There’s nothing I think I can’t accomplish because of them. I remember in high school when we were going over college decisions, and we had to meet with the counselor, she said I wasn’t “Yale material.” And my dad was like, “Yes she is.” I didn’t apply myself in high school. But he was like she is definitely Harvard, Yale material. Just having someone say you can do it, that means so much. Now that they believe in me, I believe in me. And I want to tell others, especially young girls and young women, if I can do it, you can do it. Even if you don’t have parents who are supportive. You can look to mentors.
O’dell Owens: Somehow in the past, people have made it a partisan issue, which I didn’t understand. When I pushed for a strong family, someone said, “You sound like a Republican.” What the hell are you talking about? It’s not politics. Are you saying if you’re a Democrat you don’t want a strong family? No. I think everyone wants a strong family.
More information about the Midwest Regional Black Family Reunion is available online.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.