When F. Scott Fitzgerald was editing Hollywood journalist (and Fitzgerald paramour) Sheila Graham’s script for a radio program, he famously advised her, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
Years later, college student Michael Owen of Atlanta got the same advice a different way: “Journalists are given one exclamation point to use in their careers,” a West Georgia journalism prof told the class. “I suggest you use it now.”
Mike Owen isn’t an exclamation point kind of guy. Not in his prolific and diverse writing and editing output, and not in his famously (some might say notoriously) dry wit.
“I remember well when we hired a very slender and very young Mike Owen,” Tom Kunkel, L-E executive editor from 1985-87, now president of St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, recalled in an email this week. “I liked him right away, but I did wonder whether he might be a bit too much of a wise-acre for his own good. Obviously I was prescient. …”
Thirty-one years later, Owen is putting a period (not an exclamation point) on a journalism career during which he has worn so many hats he could open his own haberdashery.
From a sports writing gig at the Warner Robins Daily Sun, Owen came to the Ledger-Enquirer in 1986 as an assistant news editor on the copy desk. He would later become assistant city editor, then city editor, then associate editor — doing double duty on the city desk and the editorial board.
Veteran Columbus journalist and author Billy Winn, editorial page editor during Owen’s time on the board, recalls both the unique wit and the talent.
“The first thing that comes to mind about Mike,” Winn said, “is his sense of humor, which helped keep me going. I also came to conclude that he was one of the best columnists, especially humor columnists, I ever worked with. When I went back and looked at some of them, they were just funny as hell.
“I also appreciated how good he is at the technical part of the business, which helped me because I’m an idiot about that stuff. And of course I depended on his friendship, which always means a lot.”
Owen later returned full time to the news desk, and then to reporting, covering city government for the last few years.
He also began what became an instantly popular regular feature of public service journalism — the Ledger Inquirer. It’s the L-E’s spotlight on problems of all kinds that need to be addressed, and it’s the part of his tenure here that Owen says has perhaps given him the most professional satisfaction.
“I didn’t want to do it at first,” he recalled. “Joe Kieta [executive editor from 2010-2012] showed me some other papers that were doing that kind of thing, and the stuff looked really dry. But Dimon [Kendrick-Holmes, current executive editor and then managing editor] encouraged me to use my own voice. I kind of made it my own, and I get satisfaction out of making stuff happen.”
The feature earned Owen an award from Keep Columbus Beautiful.
(Another career highlight: “I made a lawyer cry on the phone.”)
The low point of his tenure here, as it was for every colleague who experienced it, was the 1990 suicide of editor Jack Swift.
“It was surreal,” Owen said. “The thing I recall the most vividly is when [late Publisher Billy Watson] announced it to the newsroom, about half of us, the younger half, just stood there in stunned silence. The other half went to their desks and started working.”
Among the many colleagues with whom Owen says he enjoyed sharing his career are Winn, Jim Houston, Priscilla Black Duncan, reporters Maria Lameiras and Judy Sheppard, and editors Mary Margaret Byrne, Carroll Lisby and Baxter Omohundro.
With all due respect to the above journalists, it is neither those colleagues nor any of his various jobs that have been, and are, the most important and enduring result of his tenure here.
That distinction would go to the arrival of an L-E religion reporter named Allison Kennedy. Owen and Kennedy became “coffee buddies” and, in 2003, husband and wife.
(Owen has been twice divorced — once from his first spouse, and more recently from the Atlanta Braves; when they left his hometown for the suburbs he spurned them as the Cobb County Crackers and vows to pay no alimony.)
Allison Kennedy Owen, now a Baptist minister who serves as chaplain at Columbus Hospice, said of her spouse of 14 years, “I married my father — not literally, you understand, but Michael and my father have a dry, quick wit that’s unparalleled. One time a telemarketer called the house. I cringe when he answers because I know he’ll say something colorful. This person was selling photo portrait packages. Michael said no thanks because his brother is a photographer for National Geographic (he’s not): ‘Every time we get together, we all have to take our clothes off and squat by the river.’ Click.”
Owen’s well-known wit, in person or in print, isn’t of meanness or malice: “Maybe this is a function of experience,” Mike Burbach, editor here from 1997-2004, wrote in an email, “but I find myself seeing truths in the faces of the people I have had the great good luck of knowing. When I see Mike’s face in my mind, the true thing I think is, I’ve never known a real cynic. Mike knows baloney when he sees it. He’s seen plenty and he’ll say so. To somebody who’s not paying attention, that might sound like cynicism. But then you look and listen, and you see heart and soul and humor and hope … Mike is smart, talented, diligent, funny, and it was clear at every turn that he cares about his craft and colleagues and community.”
That observation echoes another of Kunkel’s: “People like that are what carry along our traditions, tell our history and speak truth to power. Mike has done all that and more for Columbus.”
Owen steps away from his career at the top of his craft. This spring, he’ll receive an investigative reporting award, beating out writers from larger newspapers in the state including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for his coverage of the Columbus Consolidated Government’s salary debacle.
“I can’t say what it is,” Kendrick-Holmes said of the award, which will be announced at an upcoming banquet. “It’s a big deal and I can’t remember us ever winning it before. It’s not a Pulitzer, but Mike should have won one of those for one-liners. Being a journalist can be a tough job and it helps if you laugh a lot, and Mike made sure we did that. Man, I’m going to miss him around here.”
As for what he’ll do in retirement, “I plan to do some freelancing” (a 50-year history of St. Thomas Episcopal Church is among his independent writing while still working at the L-E) “and I hope to get some semblance of a golf game back.”
A talented woodworker, he also plans to spend more time in his wood shop, where he builds and repairs guitars.
Mike Owen’s career as a writer is far from over. The difference now is that he’ll be writing what he wants, and when he wants to.