Hand raised aloft, a smiling bronze sculpture of Milum Oswell (“M.O.”) Owens Jr. welcomes young people to the Worship and Fine Arts Center of Gaston Christian School in North Carolina. The school, established by Owens in 1978 and now enrolling nearly 900, is just one part of his legacy, but one that was exceedingly meaningful to him, said his daughter and Furman alumna Linda Owens Russ ’63, of Greenville, South Carolina.
Owens, an avid supporter of education and the oldest known Furman alumnus, died in May at the age of 105.
At Furman, Owens was part of the swim and track teams and helped form the Furman Glee Club. An English and modern languages honor student, Owens served as editor of Bonhomie and Hornet, and was a member of the varsity debate team, Le Cercle Francais and the International Relations Club.
After graduating from Furman in 1933, the New Holland, South Carolina, native served as a teacher and principal in the town of Barwick, Georgia, then enrolled in Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he earned a master’s in theology. Years later, he completed a doctorate in theology at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.
In the meantime, he pastored several churches in the Carolinas and planted Parkwood Baptist Church in Gastonia, North Carolina. He also helped form seven new churches in North Carolina and shepherded more than a dozen congregations after his retirement from Parkwood in 1980.
“He was 100 percent committed to his ministry,” said Russ. Described as a selfless man who loved life, Owens was also dedicated to community with his participation in various Kiwanis, Rotary and Lions clubs. He also served on the board of trustees at Gardner-Webb University for nearly 15 years.
Russ recalled Owens “bending over backwards” to invest in the lives of others. In particular, Owens reached out to a high school graduate in his Lenoir, North Carolina, church. In the late 1950s the two purchased a Model A Ford, which they restored to running condition, then took turns driving it for several years. He helped another young man build a boat. “I don’t know if it ever saw water,” said Russ, “but that’s the type of thing Dad would do.”
Owens, who loved traveling with his three daughters and late wife Ruby Bridges Owens ’33, authored three books and a quarterly publication, The Watchman. Among hobbies such as coin and stamp collecting, building as many as 20 dollhouses and tending his beloved roses, he followed professional basketball and baseball and was an enthusiastic golfer, even beyond his century mark.
Russ said her father was well-read and had an expansive vocabulary. But words began to fail him with the onset of mild dementia.
“That was hard to see,” she said. But even after a diagnosis of congestive heart failure last year and a minor stoke this year, Owens never complained.
He attended many of his milestone reunions at Furman. Last year would have been his 85th, but he was not physically able to attend. Russ was happy her father was able to join her in 2013 for her 50th reunion, his 80th, with Owens being the last surviving member of the class of 1933.
“He had a wonderful attitude, lived a long life and was grateful for it,” said Russ. Speaking on behalf of her sisters, she added, “We feel incredibly gifted and fortunate that we had both our parents. Dad was a giving, loving and humble man. You just don’t find many like him.”