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As the McKenzie Rotary Club year of 2019-2020 comes to a close, I can’t help but think of all the leaders the club has had over the years. One name stands out among the rest, Oscar Owen. He was …
As the McKenzie Rotary Club year of 2019-2020 comes to a close, I can’t help but think of all the leaders the club has had over the years. One name stands out among the rest, Oscar Owen. He was the gold standard for Rotarians. Oscar was the epitome of Rotary’s motto “Service Above Self.”
As the club’s hallmark Rotarian, the club’s Rotarian of the year award was named in his honor. He was always willing to donate his time and efforts without needing public recognition.
Oscar Raye Owen was born November 18, 1930, in the Old Union community near Como in Henry County, Tennessee his parents, Robert Orlando Owen and Katie Highfill Owen, attended both Old Union Primitive Baptist Church and Tumbling Creek Missionary Baptist Church. In those days, Old Union held services on the first and third Sundays while Tumbling Creek’s services were on second and fourth Sundays.
Oscar started school in the one-room schoolhouse known as Liberty Four before moving to the school at New Bethel. His older sister, Mary, was teaching at the New Bethel schoolhouse.
His father was a successful farmer, but he died suddenly in 1939 from a ruptured appendix. The family stayed on the farm for a few more years, living in a home with no electricity. He and his older brother, Bob, helped work the farm.
Growing up in the Great Depression era, the family learned to be resilient. They grew their own food, canning and preserving it for the winter months. Tenderloins were canned while other meats were salted and cured. Oscar one remarked, “We had plenty to eat. Most of the work was farmers swapping back and forth or sending a kid to help a neighbor, then they would come and help you.”
Shortly after World War II, the family moved to McKenzie. In the fall, Oscar began attending McKenzie High School. He began working for C.H. “Red” Summers after school as a stock boy.
“There weren’t many jobs for kids back then,” he shared, “I mowed his yard, washed his car, unloaded the trucks - anything he wanted me to do. It didn’t matter because I was getting 30 cents an hour and it was steady work.”
After high school, Oscar began college. He was not sure of his career path so after the first quarter, he dropped out and began working with his brother as an assistant cashier at the Bank of Gleason.
He worked at the bank from 1950 to 1952 before he was drafted into the Army. At 22 years old, he was going to take part in the Korean War. His brother, Bob, was drafted a few months earlier.
Once he finished basic training, he was sent to Korea with a brief stop in Japan where he learned his brother was stationed in Okinawa.
In Korea, Oscar served as a medical corpsman in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. He was promoted to sergeant first class (SFC) in 1953. It was in the same year as company aidman on the King Company Outpost he saw action during Operations Old Baldy, Porkchop Hill and the defense of the Dale and Westview Outposts.
From March through December 1953, SFC Owen was in Korea near the 38th parallel in the fight of his life. His commanding officer First Lieutenant George Block recommended him for the Bronze Star.
The recommendation said in part:
During the period that he is recommended for this award, SFC Owen served in the capacity of medical aid man and litter bearer section leader in the Medical Company of the 31st Infantry Regiment. He performed his duties in an outstanding manner. SFC Owen gave the type of leadership and inspiration that won him the respect and admiration of all who knew him. His performance was outstanding because it was above and beyond the call of duty. SFC Owen distinguished himself by meritorious achievement in connection with operations against the enemy near Sangmago-Ri, North Korea. During the period March 6, 1953, to January 10, 1954, SFC Owen served as company aid man on King Company Outpost, Operations Old Baldy, West View, Pork Chop and Dale Outpost. His repeated disregard of self while treating casualties under enemy fire is typical of his high caliber performance of duty.
“It was also during this period that SFC Owen personally directed the litter bearer section to the highest point of efficiency. It was his section, while under enemy fire, that saved hundreds of men’s lives evacuating them from the scene of battle. SFC Owen personally exposed himself to enemy fire to see that the best possible evacuation was given to the friendly wounded.
“His resplendent example of leadership and high standards contributed immeasurably to the effectiveness and efficiency of the company. SFC Owen’s performance reflects great credit upon himself and the Army Medical Service. His laudable service is in keeping with the noble traditions of the military service.
Oscar never received that medal, only the lesser Army Commendation Medal. Sixty-six years later, on August 9, 2019, the Army corrected Oscar’s military record and awarded him the Bronze Star that his commander recommended. He has always been very humble about his military service.
Home from the Army, he enrolled at Bethel College and began studying elementary education while working part-time for Red. Soon he left his job with Summers and began his career with the U.S. Post Office. When he started with the post office, he wasn’t promised full-time status.
While at Bethel, he met Sara Kemp. The summer after graduation, the couple was married in the Shiloh Cumberland Presbyterian Church where Sara had attended since childhood.
For the next 37 years, Oscar worked for the postal service. Using his teaching certification only a few times when the schools were in need. Sara worked in the Trezevant school system for three years, dividing her time between the classroom and serving as the school’s secretary.
She stepped down from teaching after the birth of their two sons, Dana and Clayton. After the boys started school she managed Bethel’s bookstore for 27 years.
After his retirement, Oscar returned to the Bank of Gleason 50 years after first starting there after high school. He worked part-time for several years and served as the treasurer for the McKenzie Rotary Club (he had been a member off-and-on since 1950).
Oscar was a Sunday school teacher and deacon at McKenzie First Baptist Church and was an active volunteer at the McKenzie Regional Hospital (Methodist Hospital) for nearly 10 years. He made it a point to golf at least twice a week and he was a lifelong Tennessee Volunteers fan.
For 63 years Oscar and Sara were nearly inseparable. On September 21, 2019, Oscar died leaving behind 88 years of friendship, dedication and mentorship to the community.