Today we remember Ed Owen who passed away thirty-four years ago at the age of seventy-three (1990). Ed was the 2nd generation of Owen’s to lead Paxton & Vierling Steel and its affiliates. In addition to his management of Owen Industries, he was active in the community through his support of multiple civic and charitable organizations. His efforts lead to developments and improvements at a variety of local treasures: He served either as President or Chairman of the Zoo Foundation for 11 years at the Henry Doorly Zoo where he was responsible for the Gorilla and Orangutan structures, the Sea Lion Pavilion, the Flamingo Pool and Swan Valley. He was instrumental in arranging the funding for the cat complex, the zoo hospital, the giraffe facilities and with Bob Brown developed the Omaha Zoo Railroad.
He was also active with the Omaha Community Playhouse and helped with a variety of initiatives undertaken in the 1980s.
Ed also commemorated at several state parks and recreational facilities as director of the Nebraska Game and Park Foundation. Platte River State Park has the Overlook Tower, Owen Landing marina and concession area and an Owen Crossings bridge as well as cabins, tennis courts and other amenities bearing his name (a personal favorite is the outhouse that bears his nickname the “Gumpasir”).
Other projects of his are included at Schramm Park State Recreation Area, Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, Fort Robinson State Park, and Ashfall State Historical Park, where he and Mike Yanney were able to secure the land and save the spot for future generations.
Owen was “a gentleman whose heart was always in the right place,” said Dr. Lee Simons, former director of the zoo.
Conservation Notes by Dr. Lee Simmons – 1990
He made our lives interesting.
On February 22, 1990, the community and the state lost a great resource and one of its most interesting citizens.
Edward E. Owen was the Chairman emeritus and past president of the Omaha Zoological Society Board on which he had served for 25 years.
His tenure spanned the transformation of a 1920s and W.P.A. menagerie to the world class zoo of today. He was proud of what the zoo had become.
While I am not totally sure how Ed would have responded to being call a “great resource” or an “interesting citizen, “I suspect that he would have first checked his walled and then grinned.
That Ed Owen was a great resource to the community (benefactor could be substituted but seems a bit too formal and stuffy for Ed who was not) cannot be denied for his generosity was legendary and his pockets deep. The evidence is visible not only at the zoo, but at the Playhouse, in many Nebraska Games and Parks facilities across the state, the Boys Club, Aksarben and may other places.
For many who knew Ed, I suspect the word “resource” is much to tame. For Ed was not tame, nor was the manner in which he supported those institutions he believed in.
My first clear recollection of Ed was in the late 1960s when he teamed up with Bob Brown of the Union Pacific Railroad to provide (another too tame word) the zoo with a railroad complete with a 5/8 scale live steam locomotive. The U.P. built the track, and Ed bought the locomotive and donated the trestle over Owen Gulch. Between them, they persuaded a number of others to contribute materials and in-kind services. I am not sure anyone knew how much it was going to cost before we started and probably only Ed knew how much it cost when it was finished. It was simply something that would be good for the zoo, good for the community to have there and needed to be done.
Over the years there were many such things that “needed to be done.” Often the zoo’s greatest resource was the fact that if sources for half the funds were identified, Ed would say “start digging, we should be able to do the rest on guts.” Everyone understood whose.
Projects that were started on “half in the bank and half guts” included the cat complex and the giraffe complex. Other projects Ed funded or contributed to include the Owen Sea Lion Pavilion, Swan Valley, the zoo hospital and nursery and renovation of the gorilla and orangutan houses.
Ed had been descripted as gruff, inpatient, cantankerous and a perfectionist. He was all those and more. He could make your life so interesting you could hardly stand it.
Yet, while we are mainly concerned about animal facilities and animal husbandry, Ed practiced Disney World philosophies and techniques for zoo visitors involving clean restrooms and flower beds. I guess he knew we would take care of the animals, but someone had to look out for the mom and kids.
Finally, while we sometimes (make that often times) disagreed about the details and mechanics for solving a problem, there never was a doubt about Ed’s commitment to the long-term goal of benefiting his community.
The Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha and the state of Nebraska are better places to live because of Edward F. Owen. He was a gentleman. We will miss him, and he sure could make life interesting.
That he was. His enthusiasm and willingness to help support and hard work, is hard to replace. He made his mark on the community, his company, and his family and will forever be missed.