When B.D. Owens arrived on campus in 1977, the University was on probation with the accreditation board, funding was lacking, and the winter prior, the high rises nearly froze because the heating system couldn’t keep up under extreme temperatures.
A few years into his presidency, the most historic building on campus was nearly destroyed in a fire.
Within eight years, B.D. Owens oversaw the construction of two new buildings, rebuilt the University’s reputation with the state legislature and accreditation board and established some of the most well-known pieces of Northwest’s campus and culture
University President John Jasinski hosted a Celebration of B.D. and Sue Owens as part of Family Weekend Sept. 27 on the third floor of B.D. Owens Library to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Administration Building fire and commemorate all of his contributions to Northwest.
B.D. Owens, the eighth president of Northwest, graduated from Northwest in 1959, according to the Northwest presidential archive, and is the only president who is also an alumnus. He served as an air force pilot before coming to Northwest.
He said student life at Northwest looked much different during his time, with 1,200 to 1,500 students, many of which were veterans and their families.
“There was a lot of student activity,” B.D. Owens said. “People were doing things all the time and studying hard. It was an era, I guess, because of so many veterans coming back and being on campus. That probably had some impact on the level of study that was going on.”
B.D. Owens said he and Sue Wright Owens met on campus, but it took some time before they started dating.
“I always had an idea that if I asked a girl for a date three times and I got turned down three times, that was it,” B.D. Owens said. “So the third time I asked her for a date … I said how about a cup of coffee at King’s, so we went out for a cup of coffee and the rest is history.”
Sue Wright Owens read a selection of her poems during the latter half of the event, including one which compared the joy of their youth with the continued joy in retirement.
“I knew one day we’d both turn gray, inevitability does have its way,” Sue Wright Owens said. “We had great fun at 21, and now retire when day is done. We’re thankful we can think and do; we’ll look back with envy at 82.”
After serving as president at the University of Tampa from 1971 to 1977, B.D. Owens had renewed his contract and wasn’t planning on leaving, but when the offer came for the president’s position at Northwest, the thought kept eating away at him.
“We had no intention of coming back here, but there was the old water torture thing starting — drip, drip, drip,” B.D. Owens said. “The thing that kept coming up on the good side was that Northwest has done a lot for us, both of us, and we felt that Maryville would be a better place to raise two boys.”
In the winter before B.D. Owens came back to Northwest, the high rises nearly froze because the heating system wasn’t strong enough to combat the harsh cold.
B.D. Owens said he felt the University needed an alternate power source, since fuel couldn’t make it to campus if the rivers froze. He said the committee considered oil and coal from more local sources but decided to take a chance on woodburning.
“The technology for woodburning was not there, but we decided we could make it work,” B.D. Owens said. “And there was a federal bill at that time where taxation was very advantageous for people who invested in things like that.”
The Power Plant, which was renamed in honor of John C. Redden Jr. in June, converted fully from coal burning to woodburning in 1981, according to the Northwest website.
During an already challenging time, faulty wiring caused a fire July 24, 1979 in the Administration Building, which was nearing the end of major renovations.
“It was particularly difficult because not only did we have the disaster of that, we were starting to recover because we’d lost a lot of enrollment during the time when accreditation was under question,” B.D. Owens said.
He said there were people around the state who suggested merging Northwest with Missouri Western University and turning Northwest’s campus into a minimum security prison.
“I wasn’t about to buy into that idea,” B.D. Owens said. “So we had to fight that battle at the same time we were trying to recover from this.”
According to a display at the event, in the year following the fire, Northwest secured state funding to rebuild the Administration Building.
Funding also contributed to building the Ron Houston Center for the Performing Arts to replace the auditorium within the Administration Building that had burned, convert Wells Library into Wells Hall and build B.D. Owens library, which opened in 1983.
B.D. Owens said seeing Northwest’s growth in the time since his presidency has exceeded his expectations.
“To see the fundraising and friendraising that’s going on now … it’s really so gratifying,” B.D. Owens said. “Northwest is ahead of its time and staying ahead of its time and doing the job it should be doing, which is teaching.”
After Jasinski’s interview with B.D. Owens, Sue Wright Owens introduced her collection in the library. The Sue Wright Owens collection contains a selection of her poetry books and artwork.
Sue Wright Owens read a selection of her poems, which focus on themes of life, nature and aging.
Since retiring from teaching music, Sue Wright Owens said she has written more than 600 poems and painted more than 500 watercolors.
“She’s always supported my career, and I’m happy to support her career with writing,” B.D. Owens said. “She’s so prodigious; she writes everything down.”
In addition to reading from her children’s book “The Wild Animal Alphabet” and her latest book “Birds,” both of which she illustrated herself, she read a selection of poems from her three volumes about aging.
Northwest’s First Lady Denise Jasinski said Sue Wright Owens, as well as former First Lady Virginia Foster, mentored her throughout her time at Northwest.
“You know, it’s nice to have somebody that’s gone through this before, because we were raising our kids when we first moved here … so it’s nice to have somebody to talk to about how to maneuver raising your children on campus,” Denise Jasinski said. “They both took me by the hand and said honey, you just be true to your soul, and you will do just fine.”