By Allyson Hinkle
Editor In Chief
- Students and faculty of the university were distraught at the news of Dr. Kerry Owens passing last November from cancer. As a friend of many, and a devoted husband and father, he was a ray of sunshine with his joyful and friendly personality.
Kerry had a very big personality and a voice to match. He was both joyful and cynical, yet he was able to make friends with anyone he encountered. Kerry was also said to be extremely funny and that he could own and work any room. He was described as “the heart of Heard Hall,” by a former professor in the Department of History and Political Science, Dr. Claire Phelan. Kerry’s wife, UMHB communication professor Kathy Owens echoed this sentiment..
“His office was on the second floor and it was the first office you would see after walking up the stairs,” Professor Kathy Owens said. “His door was always open, and often times professors who had to trek up to the third floor would stop by to catch their breath. The hall was always filled with laughter and talking,” Kathy explained. “And now it’s quiet.”
Kerry began life in Little River Academy, just east of Belton. He was born into a family of teachers, with his mother Caroline serving as an education professor at UMHB for 39 years and his father Riley teaching English at Temple College. His younger brother Kent also grew up to be a teacher, teaching physical education for special needs students in Killeen.
After graduating from Academy High School as senior class president, Kerry went to Baylor University in Waco, where he double majored in speech communication and journalism.
While at Baylor he worked on the student newspaper as well as the Temple Daily Telegram in the summers, covering sports. He eventually earned his masters in communication at Baylor.
Then Kerry went to Louisiana State University, where he earned his Ph.D. in communication. It was at LSU that Kerry Owens met Kathy (Whitlock), who was working on her masters in communication.
Both were professors before coming to UMHB.
Kerry Owens taught in Clinton, Mississippi at Mississippi College and Kathy Owens taught at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. They lived halfway in between their two jobs, in Tallulah.
Before they ever got married, Kerry made Kathy make him a promise that if the opportunity ever arose to move back “home” to Kerry’s hometown, they would take it. Though hesitant at first, Kathy expressed how happy she eventually was to have moved.
“I have no regrets; these have been the best 18 years of my life,” Kathy stated.
While at UMHB, the couple shared teaching responsibilities with the speech communication component of the Department of Communication and Media Studies. They also coached Speech Cru, the speech and debate team, with offices next to each other on the second floor of Heard Hall.
Kerry taught numerous classes: public speaking, advanced public speaking, business speech, persuasion and argumentation and debate. He was labeled as a “tough teacher,” because he made his tests purely discussion based; students either loved his class or did not.
Kerry cowrote the public speaking textbook entitled Introduction to Public Speaking with Kathy, as well as other books or articles with research emphasis on political communication, emphasizing the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement.
He was debate coach when the team recently earned their 2022 National Championship in Novice Parliamentary Debate at the National Christian Forensic Association, in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Besides his teaching and competitions, Dr. Kerry Owens was a parent, influencing the two children he had with Kathy.
“When Charlie was born, Kerry held him to the TV where a football game was playing,” Kathy said of Kerry,“and said to him, ‘Son, this is football. It is very important.’’”
His youngest child, Adrien, was in awe of Dr. Owens.
“Adrien thought that Daddy hung the moon,” Kathy said.
While their son Charlie was involved in baseball, Kerry helped coach for 10 years in Little River Academy. Adrien played softball, and both children were involved with the speech team at school.
Both participated in One Act play competitions like their father, and both children followed in his footsteps, making the All Star cast in UIL competition.
In June of 2022 Kerry was diagnosed with stage four cancer, he went into treatment to try and salvage as much time as he could. When he was told he had to make the hard decision to stop teaching, he almost immediately cleared his office, because he didn’t want Kathy to have to do it. He pulled out the important things; like favorite pictures and textbooks, knowing he would not be able to return.
He completed what he could by August.
Kerry died November 27, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and after the fall semester. Towards the end, the man who once loved language with a burning passion found it difficult to talk in intelligible sentences, as his words would not come to him easily, or correctly.
Kathy expressed her feelings about her experience during this time as follows:
“It is an honor to be close enough to someone that you get to watch them pass,” Kathy said, “but it is the hardest thing I have ever had to go through.”
Since November, there have been many ways that the UMHB community has honored Kerry. Donations went to a scholarship dedicated to his grandparents, the Allison-Owens Scholarship, as well as the Little League in Academy, where Kerry volunteered.
David Holcomb, a political science professor at the university, led a service dedicated to his friend.
Finally, Dr. John Vassar, provost of the university, organized a celebration for Dr. Owens at a playoff football game in December that echoed Kerry’s joyful personality.
Dr. Vassar called Kathy about a potential moment of silence, but wanted to make it more special.
“Dr. Vassar said: ‘It just doesn’t sound right for Kerry. We want to hold a moment of celebration instead,’ he said,” Kathy Owens explained about the conversation.
“And I of course I said ‘absolutely,’ that is just perfect for him.”
So instead of a moment of silence, everyone in the Crusader Stadium stood and clapped and cheered for a full minute in Dr. Kerry Owen’s honor.
“I cried all the way through it,” Kathy Owens said, “but it was absolutely lovely and a perfect way to remember Kerry. because he loved Cru football.”
Kerry was a huge supporter of his favorite teams: the Academy Bumblebees, the Baylor Bears, the LSU Tigers, and the UMHB Crusaders. It was not uncommon to hear a gleeful yell of support for a team from his office in Heard Hall. Green and gold, and purple and gold were usually seen on Dr. Owens, especially as he left the hall at the end of the day to head over to Mayborn Activity Center to get on the treadmill, something he did daily for years.
He has been missed at Mayborn, as well as Heard, and across Central Texas.
“During hospice, people came out of the woodwork to see him,” Kathy said. “And when someone talked football with him, he could speak clearly again – it was the strangest thing I ever saw.”
There was another time that Kathy Owens knew Kerry had spoken clearly again. That was when Kerry told his wishes to a family member and they relayed that Kerry spoke this very clearly:
“I left them behind and rode into the sunset, not knowing the answer.” Then Kerry said: “Come to the funeral. Don’t be sad, celebrate and eat!”
Courtesy Photo at top, sitting at table: Dr. Kerry Owens at his high school reunion that took place summer of 2022.
Photo of Dr. Owens, speaking, by Kathy Owens: Dr. Kerry Owens speaking in the Meyer Christian Studies Building in Manning Chapel for an African American History Month event in February of 2019, on his area of expertise in African American Rhetoric.
Bottom Photo at Crusader Stadium, by Matt Jackson: Dr. Kerry Owens and Professor Kathy Owens’ son Charlie comforts Kathy during the memorial game in December. Charlie’s girlfriend Caitlin Schumacher is at background right.