DeKALB - Walt Owens didn't need a retirement party to realize his impact on people. As a teacher for 54 years, with 34 years at Northern Illinois, Owens has been a pioneer in many aspects of his life. Late last month, Owens celebrated his life at a retirement party at the Convocation Center. Several people flew into town from all over the country, honoring Owens' amazing life and coaching and teaching career. Owens grew up in Detroit, and graduated from Western Michigan in 1955. He played basketball and ran track in college, running a leg of the 880-meter relay team that won the Mid-American Conference title and set a conference meet record. Owens taught in the Detroit-area for 19 years before arriving in DeKalb to become an assistant men's basketball coach under Emory Luck. Following a three-year stint, Owens served as NIU's baseball coach until the sport was dropped in the early 1980s. During his career, Owens has coached major league stars Willie Horton and Alex Johnson, and helped recruit NIU Hall of Famer Paul “Doctor D” Dawkins. Owens' celebrated life includes playing outfield and pitching for the Detroit Stars of the Negro Baseball League. He was a teammate of Dave DeBusschere, who started on the NBA champion New York Knicks. Owens played on the Boston Whirlwinds against the Harlem Globetrotters, and was inducted into the Negro Baseball League Hall of Fame in 2000 and the USSSA Hall of Fame in 2003. Owens was a founding member of the National Congress of Black Faculty. The father of four boys and two girls, Owens' son, Mel, was an All-Stater in football at DeKalb High School, played at Michigan and with the Los Angeles Rams. Owens' basement includes countless pictures of celebrities in sports and music, most of which he has taken. Owens has traveled the world, and knows numerous celebrities. He has had a profound influence on hundreds of people and is considered a trailblazer for African-Americans. Owens recently sat down with the Daily Chronicle and discussed his storied life. BELOW IS OWENS' WORDS ON HIS LIFE AND CAREER:
I ended up running track the last three weeks of college and we would up breaking the MAC conference record in the 880 relay. I still got the cinders in my arm and hip from when I fell. I didn't want to run track. Finally I was convinced to run track and qualified for the 100, 220, long jump and the coach threw me into the relay. I didn't even know how to hand the baton so they made me the lead-off guy. I dove and gave the next guy the baton and that's how I got this scar on my arm at Ohio University in 1955, the year I graduated.
When I got my master's at Western Michigan, I was playing in the independent league in Kalamazoo and leading the league in hitting and the Indianapolis Clowns came in and recommended that I travel with them. I had played with the Detroit Stars before that on the weekend. My main position was pitcher and outfielder. I wasn't allowed to play at Western. I would go home and play on the weekends. I always had assumed names. Back then, they never tracked you. There were guys who would play three or four years and transfer to another college and play more years.
I played in the Negro League from 1953-55. I was using assumed names all the time from some of the guys I went to school with - Bernie Porter, Eddie Williams, Moses Willis. They were all players out of Detroit. The guys I was playing with contacted me when I was 14 and they asked me to barnstorm with them and go play in Canada. My mother didn't want me to go out of the country. They pleaded with her and told her they would look after me. I had a great time and enjoyed it. I used to think I was hot stuff. But later in life, I wondered why they came to get me. I was pretty good, but they picked me because they didn't have to pay me. They gave me a bologna sandwich and I was happy.
I was the baseball instructor for the city of Detroit. One day it rained and I went into the gym and started shooting basketball. I met Emory Luck after talking with a girl who asked if I played basketball. She told me Emory played for the Globetrotters and he came in and I asked him if was interested in coaching with me at Denby High School. He said yes. He drove every day from quite a distance across town. When he left to go to the University of Illinois to get his doctorate, he told me, “I'm going to call you when I'm a coach one day and to be ready.” He came to Northern Illinois as an assistant. I had never heard about Northern until then. The following year Tom Jorgensen decided to quit and they made Emory the head coach and I came with him. I coached here for three years before they decided to make him the baseball coach. It turned out to be a good time.
I coached baseball here until 1981 when they dropped baseball for 10 years. I never got back into coaching, but I taught baseball and basketball coaching class. I've taught for 54 years. I never thought I would settle down here. I've been here longer than I've been at Detroit.
The greatest satisfaction is just meeting the people. I go to graduation every year. Going last weekend and watching the kids come in and leave four, five or six years later. Some of them look at me and say, “Coach, I made it.” This one girl one time ran out of line and started crying because she didn't think she would make it.
Watching kids mature is fun. You mold some of them into adults. I went to the all the Chicago Bulls home playoff games against Detroit this year. I remember a long time ago this one kid came up to me (while I was in Detroit) and shook my pants and said he wanted to be my trainer. I put him through the paces and watched him grow. Now he is the trainer for the Detroit Pistons. Mike Abdenour. He has been with the Pistons for 27 years. I was talking to Chauncey Billips about him. I also had his brother, Tom, who was with the Golden State Warriors. You see a kid like Willie Horton who had all this ability but he wasn't mature. You have to cultivate him and watch him grow. That was great.
I've had guys who I've coached make the majors and even went to prison. I've played against guys like Spencer Haywood. Probably the best I've coached is Henry Carr. He scored 27 touchdowns one year. He broke the city, state and national record in the 100 and 220 and won two gold medals in the Olympics and then played pro ball. He then told me his best sport was baseball and I never let him play. Willie Horton was a great player. He was clutch. In a championship game, he hit two balls foul on the third deck on top of the roof in Tigers Stadium. Later he hit a shot to upper deck centerfield bleachers to section 43. Only Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle have done that. He was 16 years old.
When I got out of coaching, I started meeting kids on campus from all aspects of life - teaching, nursing and communication. I got to know them so much better than just teaching PE. Last year the White Sox honored Negro League players and a bunch of people started yelling “Coach, coach.” It was unbelievable.
At my retirement, people were flying in from Florida, Tennessee and other places. I didn't even tell the people in Detroit. I got a call from one of the Temptations and they told me they would've put on a show. What a show that would've been. Richard Street of the Temptations played basketball for me. He told me he was a better baseball player, but never played.
I cried at my retirement party. I couldn't stop. Since the 12th grade I've always had a handkerchief with me every day. Sometimes even two. But I didn't have one at the retirement party. But to feel the love. I knew people liked me, but I didn't know the love was so deep. It was amazing. I got a job, worked 34 years. It's been great.
I came here in 1973. They told me that Convocation Center would be built in three years and built where Molly's is at. To watch Northern Illinois come from behind in the facilities race is nice. When I was coaching it was just me. Now they got five or six coaches.
On July 9 the White Sox are having me in for a session and I'm going to fly to Kansas City for a two-day interview. At the time, I was ashamed to be in the Negro Leagues because I knew I was good enough to play in the major leagues. I was faster than everybody by far. I had five triples in one game once.
I integrated baseball in the city of Detroit in 1957. Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947. When I was going to school at Western Michigan, I was the only black in class most of the time. When I was teaching at Denby, I was the only black coach. It's been that way all my life. But somebody had to do it. I just treated people the way I would want to be treated. Maybe that's why so many people came to my retirement party. They all said they loved or liked me.
Bo Schembechler wrote me a recommendation when I applied for the Northern Illinois Assistant Athletic Director's job. I put in an application. John McClendon, one of the greatest basketball coaches, wrote one. He taught Dean Smith the four in the corner. He called it two in a corner. I knew (then-NIU AD) Gerald O'Dell wouldn't give to me. People thought I was too successful, but I wasn't.
I remember my son, Mel, needed to take some classes. I told him to take Chaucer or Shakespeare. He didn't want to take it. He said, “Did you take it?” I said no, it was too hard. I told him he was smarter than me. He took the class. Years later, when he was playing for the Rams, I flew out to John Wayne Airport and he parks his car illegally. He runs in to help me and runs out and the lady is writing him a $100 ticket. He goes up to her and says something. He talked to her for a while and she slips the ticket into her pocket. When we drive away, I asked him what happened. He told me, “Dad, I told her any police officer can write a ticket, it takes a special kind of police officer not to write one.” I said, “Where did you get that one?” He said, “Remember that course in Shakepeare?” I guess it paid off taking the course, it saved him 100 bucks.
When they dropped baseball here that allowed me to see every game of Mel's in his senior year at Michigan. Through the years we've gone to Japan, Germany and England for the American Bowl all the time. Mel got me into photography. He had a camera and I started taking pictures. But I didn't want to be the dad who just took pictures of him. I took pictures of Eric Dickerson, Jackie Slater, Jack Youngblood. I don't have hardly any of Mel. It was a lot of fun watching him mature.
Gene Lamont used to be my assistant coach here. One time he got out of coaching and I saw him coaching basketball. I told him to help me. I told him to speak to the kids, and he said he wasn't a good public speaker. I told him you just told me you wanted to be a major league coach. He had a great coaching career in the majors.
I was just talking with coach (Ricardo) Patton last Sunday at the Bulls game. He said he wants me to talk to his players, mentor them and for me to come to practice. He wants me to be a part of the program. I try and treat kids like men. I like to kid them, too.
I used to think I could save everybody. You see people do things with their lives that is just unbelievable. That's the part I'll miss.
A few years ago, my friend Dr. Sims called and said Tiger Woods wanted me to come to Rockford when he was there. He wanted to meet me. What happened is that Sims would say things and mention my name. Tiger wanted to talk to me and know about Sims because we played basketball together. I didn't get to meet Tiger because Michael Jordan came up and they left town together.
I'm proudest of the fact that in the 54 years I taught that I was never absent until my stroke. Bobby Narang can be reached at email@example.com