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Pat Owens Was a Journalistic Giant to Be Envied

I HAD NO idea the news would have such a powerful effect on me. It had been

years since I'd really thought about Patrick J. Owens except as a legend to a

shrinking handful of Arkansas newspaper people.

I knew he was retired, sick, had moved back to Montana and, according to

rare reports of him, had lost touch with things. Sad. Maybe it was the stroke.

Then I saw the obit from Newsday that somebody e-mailed me without warning

("Journalist Patrick J. Owens Dies at 72") and I felt the old feelings he

always aroused in me, strong as ever: admiration, laughter but, mainly and

overwhelmingly, envy. Sheer, consuming, shameful, absolute envy of his talent.

His casual, impromptu, speedy, gruff talent. Patrick J. Owens had talent to

burn, which he did, prodigiously.

Pat Owens was my first boss in the newspaper business; I'd understudied him

at the Pine Bluff, Ark., Commercial. He was going off on a Nieman fellowship,

and I desperately wanted and needed his job for the year he'd be gone.

An Irishman who claimed to be Welsh, he'd never even gone to college, at

least for not more than a few weeks - in Montana. His first real classes would

come as a Nieman fellow at Harvard after winning one national award after

another in his first, what, nine months at the Commercial?

Every day Pat would shuffle in, the very picture of the word slovenly, plop

himself down in front of a typewriter, maybe clean an ear with his pencil,

then insert an endless roll of copy paper into his typewriter and in an hour or

two clack out enough short, Menckenesque masterpieces to fill the next day's

editorial column. Then he'd go out for a few beers.

While I had to sweat every word. Still do. It's not fair! I wasn't just

envious of Pat. I was jealous, too, of his fast friendship with the publisher

of the Commercial during its golden rebirth under Ed Freeman. To have one

Patrick J. Owens of Kalispell, Mont., come along and show you up daily. It was

too much to bear. I had a master's degree!

Ed and I got together when we heard the news about Patrick J. and went

through his file of Owens clips. (Ed keeps everything.) Pat's copy still leaps

off the page right at your throat. It can leave you laughing out loud, or

rightly rebuked, or just stunned, but mainly unable to tear your eyes away. It

is concise, direct - not a wasted word - and still fresh 40 years later, always

with that Patrick J. twist nobody else has. ("He didn't notice it when he went

poor.")

Even his memos as the Commercial's editor should have been taken off the

bulletin board and saved for J-school texts. Pat had the same touch with news

stories, editor's notes, letters. He sent me a note when he moved on to

Newsday, where he was writing great columns but wanted to be editorial page

editor - under the typically Owensian delusion that he would then Exercise

Power! He never understood that the power was in the words, not in any title,

and that he was already exercising it. I'm obliged to edit his note for a

family newspaper, but his comically desperate tone may still come through after

all these years - especially in the postscript, punch line and coup de grace:

"January 30, 1977. Pablo, I am . . . failing fast. Nothing can save me now . .

. I am arranging to be cremated with my old Xeroxes . . . I have learned where

they keep the computer and may have myself some fun one day soon. Con mucho

angusto. Pat. P.S. Show this letter to Ed so he'll know I'm okay."

I don't want to leave the impression that Patrick J. was only funny, or

only clever. He could skewer a world of pretension with a single, two-word

thrust. The critic John Simon, for example, never sounded quite the same after

the poor man wandered into Pat's line of sight ("A Spitball for Teacher's Pet,"

Newsday, April 29, 1977, by Patrick J. Owens). But embedded in all the

Owensiana he leaves behind are certain passages written in passing that have a

prophetic quality now, though he certainly didn't believe in prophets, at least

not in the orthodox sense. (He once told me the term "false prophet" was a

redundancy.)

Consider this observation bearing his byline and written from

deteriorating, pre-Giuliani New York City, when little Abe Beame was mayor

circa the 1970s, and the only one really in charge was General Malaise: "When

that grapefruit does go up and New York is finally reduced on the instant to

the rubble heap to which the bankers and the world's shortest mayor . . . now

exert themselves gradually to lower it, the culprit is much less likely to be

the Russkies or the heathen Chinese than it is Idi Amin or some Croessus of the

Mideast's oily sands . . ." Eerie. And prophetic.

I think Pat always understood how much he was envied, admired and read.

And, in my case, poorly imitated. The pity is I'm not sure Patrick J. Owens

ever realized how much he was loved.

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