Gwinn F. Owens

The editor and editorial writer helped develop a 'home-grown' op-ed page for The Evening Sun

March 26, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Gwinn F. Owens, a retired editor and editorial writer who made The Evening Sun's op-ed page a popular feature with readers and contributors, died of complications from dementia Sunday at College Manor nursing home in Lutherville. The longtime Ruxton resident was 87.

Mr. Owens was born in Seven Oaks, England, the son of James Hamilton Owens, a veteran newspaperman, and Olga Owens, a homemaker and musician.

They moved to Lutherville and later Riderwood, where he grew up, when his father was named editor of The Evening Sun in 1922. His father became editor of The Sun in 1938 and was named editor in chief of The Sunpapers in 1943.

A maternal uncle, Ernest von Hartz, a former Sun reporter who joined The New York Times in the 1930s as an editor, also proved to be a journalistic influence.

Mr. Owens began his college studies at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and during the summer of 1941, he landed his first newspaper job as a reporter on the Des Moines Tribune in Iowa.

He returned to Swarthmore but dropped out to enlist in the Navy, in which he served for three years including as quartermaster of the SS Mormacsea in the Pacific.

After the war, he returned to Swarthmore, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1947, and then went to work as a reporter on The Providence Journal in Rhode Island.

In 1953, he returned to Baltimore and became a staff writer for The Evening Sun. Four years later, he became the first editorial director at WJZ-TV.

During his more than two-decade tenure at WJZ, Mr. Owens also wrote several documentaries, including Mencken's America and Ma rked for Glory about writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

"Gwinn made a successful career on his own and not through his father," said James H. Bready, retired Evening Sun editorial writer, book columnist and a longtime friend.

After leaving WJZ, Mr. Owens worked briefly as head writer on Maryland Public Television's Consumer Survival Kit before returning to The Evening Sun in 1979 when then-editorial page editor Bradford McE. Jacobs expanded the op-ed page, titling it "Other Voices," and hired him to edit it.

"I know of no other paper in the U.S. that has committed itself so completely to a home-grown op-ed page," Mr. Owens wrote when he stepped down as the page's editor in 1986.

"Because he grew up in the home of the legendary Baltimore editor of The Sunpapers, his knowledge of Baltimore was broad and deep, and this was reflected on his page," said Ray Jenkins, a retired Evening Sun editorial page editor. "He was capable of hearing the most muted voices in the community and giving these expression in his columns."

Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Sun reporter who was The Evening Sun's last managing editor, said, "As op-ed page editor, Gwinn helped young writers and gave writers in general a valuable chance to bellyache, guffaw, lament, exult, yelp, pontificate, analyze, bellow, praise and excoriate, and often at the same time elucidate."

When Mr. Owens left the editorship in 1986, he was succeeded by Mike Bowler, who edited the op-ed page until 1994.

"It was easy taking over because Gwinn had everything in place, and he passed along a great tradition to me. It was a good, lively page," said Mr. Bowler, who was The Sun's education editor and a columnist when he left in 2004.

"My contributors weren't necessarily professional writers. We had a cabdriver, a 13-year-old kid and people in prison. We had people from all walks of life. And we did poetry. We had lots of poetry," Mr. Bowler said.

Mr. Bready recalled that for contributors, the draw was "seeing their byline in print and getting paid for it, and for a day, the whole of Baltimore was adoring you."

After leaving the op-ed job, Mr. Owens wrote editorials for the evening paper until retiring in 1988.

Topics that frequently occupied Mr. Owens' newspaper work, in addition to the usual heavyweight current events, included passenger trains, the lack of decent Maryland snowstorms and the need for better mass transit.

A personal campaign he waged for years in print concerned why Baltimore was being deliberately eliminated from maps, both printed and on TV, and globes.

Because H.L. Mencken had been not only a professional colleague of his father's but was also a close friend and frequent guest at the family's Riderwood home, Mr. Owens got to know the celebrated author and newspaperman and often wrote about him.

After the 1989 publication of Mencken's diaries caused something of a literary sensation because of anti-Semitic and racist comments they contained, Mr. Owens wrote in The New York Times that Mencken's "stature as a giant of American letters may be in danger."

He added: "I cannot laugh off the diary as inconsequential. And yet I have admired Mencken for most of my life as the man who freed American letters from the strictures of the puritan and genteel traditions."

He drew a comparison between Richard Wagner, a virulent anti-Semite, and Mencken.

"One can still listen to Wagner's operas and appreciate their artistic beauty. The work is separated from the man. Or is it?" he asked.

Mr. Owens and Stanley A. Blumberg were co-authors of two books, Energy and Conflict: The Life and Times of Edward A. Teller and The Survival Factor: Israeli Intelligence from World War I to the Present.

Mr. Owens enjoyed playing the cello, tennis and spending summers at Little Compton, R.I.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Boyce and Carrollton avenues in Ruxton.

Surviving are his wife of 58 years, the former Joan Quirie; two sons, Paul von Hartz Owens of Orlando, Fla., and Ross J.Q. Owens of Santa Cruz, Calif.; two daughters, Laura G. Templeton of Ruxton and Wendy Owens of Montreal; a sister, Olga Owens of Chestertown; and six grandchildren.

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