There was an announcement in the Jan. 5 edition of the Gadsden Times of the passing of Hubert Ryan Owen. It brought back memories — good memories. These memories were different, I am sure, to some Gadsden citizens’ recollections.
From Mr. Owen’s obituary I learned he was a native of Birmingham and that he moved to Gadsden in 1948 to be circulation manager for the Birmingham News. The city of Gadsden did not know it at the time, but his relocation from Birmingham to Gadsden was to be a home run for the city.
The many positive relationships between the Gadsden community and Mr. Owen are worth repeating. He was president of the Lionas Club, officer and board member of the Salvation Army, YMCA, Chamber of Commerce, United Way and the Gadsden-Etowah Board of Realtors. Among his educational honors were terms as president of Eura Brown Elementary and Disque Junior High Parent and Teacher Associations.
Mr. Owen — I call him Mr. Owen for reasons I will later explain — also was inducted into the Gadsden-Etowah Patriots Hall of Honor. The Times stated he was a combat veteran of World War II and served as a member of the 3rd Infantry Division in the European Theater. He was the recipient of various military medals that included the Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge and the Purple Heart, signifying a combat injury. He received the Croix de Guerre from France. This medal was created in 1915 and awarded to individuals or divisions that were distinguished by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces. I am sure this was one of Mr. Owen’s prized possessions.
Now to get to why he will eternally be Mr. Owen to me: He was my first “boss”, and bosses were “Mister.” I delivered the Birmingham News and even though I would not understand or recognize it at the time, he was my first mentor — and a good one. I was only 11 or 12, and was hardly a businessman. But Mr. Owen taught us young boys about business and how to treat the customer, both good ones and bad ones. We had to deliver the product as well as collect for the paper and service. The delivering was easy, but the collecting could be difficult. But most customers treated the delivery boys like kings, making sure we got out of the rain and showering us with gifts at Christmas.
My first day as a Birmingham News delivery boy was on Sunday, and if you are familiar with how the Sunday News used to be, it was like a catalogue, very heavy. I loaded my papers in the newspaper bag and threw the bag on my bicycle basket — which immediately crumpled under the weight. I was terrified and went home crying to Dad, who got out of bed and drove me around to deliver my papers. I told Mr. Owen about the trauma I had experienced with the heavy papers. He immediately responded, “If that ever happens again and your Dad is unavailable, you call me. We together will deliver your papers.”
That was the kind of man he was; he eliminated my anxiety.
There was a new customer contest among the Gadsden Birmingham News delivery boys for a trip to Washington D.C. I very much wanted to visit Washington, but was falling behind the other delivery boys. Mr. Owen knew how much I wanted to make the trip, so he took me aside and gave me ideas on ways to get new customers. His suggestions paid off and I won the trip to Washington. We had a unique relationship — one I will never forget.
I have always attributed my small business success to mentors like Elmer “Lec” Smith, Melvin Blessing, Collie Gilchrist and Jimmy Hill. As I read Mr. Owen’s obituary, there was the realization of another important mentor I did not remember. I had forgotten a good man, a great man, a person who took the time to mentor a young man from East Gadsden — something I will eternally appreciate. Godspeed, Mr. Hubert Ryan Owen, great Gadsden citizen.
John F. Floyd is a Gadsden native who graduated from Gadsden High School in 1954. He formerly was director of United Kingdom manufacturing, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., vice president of manufacturing and international operations, General Tire & Rubber Co., and director of manufacturing, Chrysler Corp. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions reflected are his own.