The Kindly Phantom

By D. Stuart Dunnan

Two passages, the first from a citation for the silver star, the second from his citation for the bronze star, describe the heroic and decisive actions of John E. Owens, a 26-year-old officer who turned the tide in two battles and saved many lives:

On 26 March 1945, during the assault crossing of the Rhine River near Willmich, Germany, Captain Owens, Commanding Officer of Company “C,” 354th Infantry, saw one of the boats containing leading elements of his company capsize in midstream, leaving heavily laden men drifting helplessly downstream under heavy enemy fire. With utter disregard for his personal safety, Captain Owens went out in an engineer launch, and rescued every man that he could locate. Later, when engineers reported that six men were stranded on a sand bar, Captain Owens again went out in a launch, in the face of heavy hostile fire, and traveling approximately 400 yards downstream, brought the men to safety. After the bulk of his company had crossed the river, Captain Owens reorganized it and led his men in taking the town of Willmich, and the sheer cliff and castle behind it, without a casualty.

On 7 April 1945 near Thal, Germany, when his company came under heavy enemy machine gun fire, Captain Owens aggressively moved to eliminate the hostile resistance. Promptly sending a messenger to the weapons platoon with directions for supporting fire, he personally moved across fifty yards of open terrain to the third platoon, whose position was most dangerous. Because of his personal direction and inspiring courage the third platoon was quickly removed from danger and the company combined its firepower to neutralize the enemy positions.

Captain Owens was especially tall (6-foot-5), so a particularly good target for enemy fire. He was an extraordinarily brave and selfless young man. I did not know this young man. I did not meet him until he was 73 and I was 33. I had come back to America from England and had just assumed the post of headmaster of Saint James School, and the greatly admired, even revered, former headmaster of Saint James invited me to lunch. If I recall correctly, it was in Catonsville, where he had been visiting the All Saints Sisters, whom he served as spiritual director and confessor.

He was still very tall, and he carried naturally, but also unassumingly, the habit of command, but he wore now a different uniform, the same one I did: the black suit, black shirt, and white collar of an Episcopal priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.

Seeing him in person, I was awed, and I recognized immediately the “great Father Owens” I had heard so much about, the legend I would never be. And I think that I just proceeded to tell him all the problems I faced and all the challenges that confronted me, how impossible my job would be: the campus needed repair and rebuilding; the academic and social standards needed reasserting; the budget did not balance; there was debt on the new Field House; the endowment was too small; the alumni did not give, and so on. My list was a long one.

He listened patiently; bought me lunch; completely understood, although he had been retired for eight years, and kept offering the same words of assurance: “Don’t worry, Stuart; you’re young.”

Frustrated that he offered no real solution, no hidden, generous donor or treasure hidden in the attic, I finally asked if he had any advice. And this was his answer: “When you make a decision, don’t worry if it is popular or not; just worry whether it is right or wrong.”

I have now had 22 years to live by his advice, and I think that I now better understand what he meant: not just “do the right thing,” but be a moral leader.

Fr. Owens was different from most headmasters in that he was an introvert and not an extrovert, so he did not enjoy giving speeches or working the crowd. I remember when we were celebrating a long-serving master who was retiring and Fr. Owens agreed to enhance the gathering by returning to campus. When I asked if he wished to speak, he said no, but at the very end of the evening as we gathered in the chapel after dinner, a hand went up at the back after everyone else had spoken.

“Father, may I just say something else?” “Of course.” And the chapel fell silent as Fr. Owens walked to the front. “I would like to say something about Dave’s wife, Betty, and the strength of their marriage.” He then offered just a few words in praise of Betty because they should have been said, and he sat down. In three or four sentences and without intending to, he made the evening.

His students called him “Black Jack” because he was always in clericals, or “the Phantom” because they would look up from a football game and suddenly see him watching on the sidelines in his black raincoat, and then look up again and he was gone. He was not the typical headmaster who loved to host gatherings, lead meetings, and be visible on campus.

Fr. Owens was not vain at all, and most great schools are built on the vanity of their heads, as we want our schools to reflect our “greatness.” He was therefore not a very ambitious fundraiser. He did much, however, to improve the school: he bought about 200 acres of farmland, built an academic building, gymnasium, dormitory, chapel and three faculty houses, and began the endowment, but he did all of this project by project and without fuss or fanfare.

He did not modernize or “grow” the school, as other heads did in his time. He did not really care if his teams won or where his graduates went to college; there was nothing promotional about him. He did care about the quality of the instruction, however, and the integrity of the school’s discipline. He ran a tight budget, but he was quick to forgive the tuition when a family lost its income. He had a particular soft spot for mothers in distress, often intervening personally to help them.

Saint James was much the same when he left it as it had been when he arrived. There were still three sit-down meals, chapel, afternoon sports, and evening study hall six days a week. The boys still wore their blazers, and the masters still worked for very little money and lived in two-room apartments. Fr. Owens was not highly paid and lived in a small single-story house in the center of campus, in no sense the typical headmaster’s residence.

Fr. Owens was optimistic about other people. He was therefore remarkably innocent, almost naïve in his expectations. He assumed that parents and alumni would want to give out of gratitude, so they should not need to be asked. He was especially disappointed that the many students who received financial aid during his time as headmaster did not feel more inspired to give to the school after they graduated.

Essentially shy and humble, Fr. Owens remained a reluctant headmaster. He came to Saint James as chaplain in 1948 and served until 1950, when he left to serve a small parish on the Eastern Shore. Bishop Noble Powell then ordered him to return as headmaster in 1955, and he tried to return to a parish several times, but Bishop Powell would not let him. He served until he retired in 1984.

He was in truth much more a priest than a headmaster. He was also a prayerful priest who did not like to preach; he preferred to preach by example. He would say Mass every morning before school, and the alumni who served him at the altar when they were students all remember coming very early at the appointed time, only to find him fully vested, preparing to celebrate, lost in prayer. He would not notice their arrival (a stunning surprise to teenagers), and he was visibly moved with emotion.

Perhaps the most famous story about Fr. Owens is how he took care of a student, Eric Mohn, who was paralyzed in a car accident during the summer before his sixth-form year. Eric was away from school for a year, and it was difficult to see how he could return, as he had become a quadriplegic, but Fr. Owens took him into his house, bathed and dressed him every day, and pushed him up the hill to school in his wheelchair. Eric’s mother often joined them, and Fr. Owens later celebrated the wedding for Eric and his wife.

Eric became a famous artist who painted intricate watercolor landscapes by holding the brush in his mouth. He never forgot what Fr. Owens had done for him, and he gave many of his best paintings to Saint James to be sold for the scholarship fund.

When our senior master, Chick Meehan, spoke to the students at lunch to give them a sense of who Fr. Owens was, he spoke about his war service and about his 29 years as headmaster. He pointed out that in Fr. Owens’s time there was no director of development or director of admissions; he did all of that himself. He ran the school with a bookkeeper and a secretary; that was his administration.

But then Chick expressed how important Fr. Owens was to him. He knew Fr. Owens not just as his boss when he started teaching at Saint James, but as a student when he came to Saint James as a boy of 13 in the second form. He said that Fr. Owens was really his second father and the man he admired most in his life, and then he stopped speaking very abruptly because he had lost his voice to emotion.

As you can imagine, Fr. Owens was almost impossible to replace, as he ran the school so personally and only gathered the board for a brief meeting and cocktail party two or three times a year with a “final collection” at the last meeting to cover the deficit. He retired in 1984. Eight years later, I came to a weakened and wounded school, so I needed the great man’s help to save it. I particularly needed him to come to my first alumni weekend as there was a brewing coup. At first he said no. But then he called the night before to say that he would join me at the alumni dinner and serve as deacon at the Mass on Sunday. When I asked if he would preach, he said no. “They will want to hear you.”

He had not been back for several years, so his return was hugely symbolic. Immediately, the talk changed from “the new headmaster is too young and ambitious” to “Father Owens is coming back.” I have never seen the alumni more excited or more moved. When he entered the main hall before dinner, they turned as one to greet him and parted reverently to make way for him, and they cried when he spoke to them, each by name. I remember thinking that he was like Moses with the Hebrews.

At dinner, true to form, he gave a very short speech, passing the school to me. I will never forget his ending: “I have told Father Dunnan that my boys will support him.” And with these words, Moses sat down and I became his Joshua.

Fr. Owens enjoyed a long and happy retirement, most of it with his friend the Rt. Rev. James Montgomery, retired Bishop of Chicago. They prayed the office and said Mass together every day, and traveled back and forth between Alexandria and Chicago. His retirement was exactly as long as his headmastership: 29 years. As a priest, he still celebrated his students’ marriages, baptized their children, corresponded with them, and prayed for them every day. He never stopped loving them, and they knew it. Indeed, as they grew older and gained more wisdom with experience in life, they came to admire him even more.

In the last few weeks of Fr. Owens’s life, Mike Lieberman, one of his own boys, whom Fr. Owens had personally rushed to the hospital when his appendix burst and stayed with in his hospital room, was his doctor. He was the one who called to tell me that Fr. Owens was dying and then said that he was on his way to see him so that he could “give him a kiss goodbye.”

Earlier, when we released word of his illness, the letters flowed in: loving and grateful and fearful at his parting. That was the first thing out of his mouth when I went to see him: he was so grateful and so moved by what his students had written. They mattered to him; they were, and are, his children.

The Rev. D. Stuart Dunnan is tenth headmaster of Saint James School in Maryland.

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