Jon Mark Beilue: Seeing the Light in Their Eyes

Jon Mark Beilue Aug 16, 2019
  • Business
  • Jon Mark Beilue
  • Education

Seeing the Light in Their Eyes

Thrill of learning still drives WT's longest-serving professor

James Owens can be found most days holed up at Palace Coffee on 34th Avenue just west of Bell Street in Amarillo. He’ll have his coffee next to an open laptop, which is his window to his course material.

"Look at this," he said, pointing to an online story on the bleak future of Macy’s department stores. "Macy’s is about to go down? Ever believe that?"

Dr. James Owens — or "Jim" to just about everyone — is West Texas A&M University’s longest-tenured professor. He’s about to begin year 42 at his alma mater, where he is now professor of finance and Hodges Professor of Corporate Governance.

He’s 77, and don’t ask him when he’s going to retire because he doesn’t know and he’d rather not think about it. Why entertain such a decision when he still enjoys what he’s doing and where he’s doing it?

"They bring me a new audience every semester," he said, "and I get to be with my friends. What’s not to like?"

Actually, Owens and the University go back 55 years, to before WT was a university, and it’s almost by accident that the two connected. He grew up in northern Indiana, and was in his third year at Indiana University in the early 1960s when his father accepted a management position at Western Southern Life Insurance in Amarillo.

Owens came down to visit his parents. Despite being firmly entrenched at IU as president of his class and fraternity, he wanted to transfer to WT.

"I fell in love with the place," he said, "and if you ever lived through Indiana winters, you’d fall in love with this place too."

He went his senior year to WT, and graduated in 1964 with a degree in finance. Owens stayed to pursue his master’s. It was just the second year WT offered a master’s in business administration.

Business classes then were only the second floor of Old Main, one story above a swimming pool. Most of the classes were taught by ex-military men from Amarillo Air Base. There was even a monstrous IBM 1401 computer.

"We were like the switchboard operator on 'Laugh-In,’" Owen said, "hot-wiring it. Boy, we thought we were hot stuff."

While earning his master’s, Owens was either allowed to or told to teach a beginning undergraduate course, Intro to Business. That’s when he fell in love with teaching.


From Canyon to Harvard

His bachelor’s degree reads West Texas State College. His master’s degree the next year reads West Texas State University. "It was a big deal," Owens said.

His doctorate reads something else entirely: Harvard University.

His GPA was so high and his test scores so good that Owens gazed to the east and the renowned Harvard School of Business. He was accepted for classes that began in August 1965.

There were 42 in his class, but only seven graduated. Owens was one. He was one of two admitted without real-world work experience as an experiment.

"Being in academics, we were used to the abuse," he said. "The rest couldn’t take the pain. You got to put one foot in front of the other. I’m going to finish that. I don’t start things I don’t finish. Others, because they had been in industry, couldn’t take — I don’t know if 'humiliation’ is the right word — but after a while, their ego couldn’t handle it. I thought we were supposed to take the beatings.

"Interestingly enough, WT was outstanding preparation. I went to Harvard, and I was terrified. These people had gone to Yale and Princeton, big stuff. About the second week of class, it dawned on me that we were talking about things that we had already talked about at WT. I was like, 'OK, when do we get to the new stuff?’"

It took Owens six years to earn his doctorate. He belonged to what he calls the world’s largest academic club, ABD — All But Dissertation. But after taking some time off, he finished his dissertation on Depreciation Theory.

Owens went to Harvard on student loans, and the University allowed Owens to pay off the loans through higher education teaching for five years. Four of those years were in a new university under Harvard’s umbrella in Tehran, Iran.

He was decorated by the Shah while there. He and his first wife also would eventually take custody of Melissa and Carl. They got Melissa at four hours old just before her birth mother was to kill her. They got Carl at nine months.

"You can never not be an Iranian," he said. "They can reject you. You can’t reject them."

They traveled on Iranian passports. Owens renewed them at the Iranian Embassy in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was working at the time. He then contacted Jerry Miller in the college of business at WT.  He had a position open and offered Owens. The four of them now came home.

"There is no adoption in Iran. You can have a ward, and so we got them work visas," Owens said. "Melissa was my maid, and Carl was my driver."

Melissa is career Air Force currently in Pensacola, Fla., and Carl is a physical therapist in Fayetteville, Ark., but Owens is largely unchanged since he began to teach at WT in 1978.

Paying it forward at WT

"Why WT?" he said. "First, they brought me back. Second, how did I get to Harvard? Through WT. I’m paying it forward. It’s not complicated. They created the opportunities. I have a lot to be grateful for in WT and Canyon. I owe them more than they owe me."

The other reasons were family. In tight-knit Canyon, like most small towns, Owens never had to defend why two Iranian children were his. They were accepting. And for nearly 60 years, he got to quail hunt with his father.

With an M.B.A., plus a doctorate from Harvard, Owens could have veered long ago into the private sector and made much more money. He had chosen to teach, and to teach for 41 years at WT.

"There’s no thrill like watching that light come on in those eyes," he said. "When you see that, that 'I got it,’ that will make you good for the whole semester. It’s amazing. It’s hard to overexaggerate.

"I like to tease my students that the other non-monetary reward is to see that look of terror in your face at exam time."

This semester, Owens will teach three classes — two online corporate governance classes, one undergraduate and one graduate. And there’s one classroom class, that Owens calls "on-ground," for undergrads on the principles of finance.

Since 1996, he’s joined other professors, including WT’s Dr. Anne Macy, to teach at the Pacific Coast Banking School at the University of Washington. The last six years he’s taught global finance to banking executives.

And no matter if it’s banking executives or first-year freshmen, Owens does not teach from a book. Finance and business in today’s climate is not like English Literature or History.

"All I do is open the web in the morning and say, 'Thank you, here’s today’s lecture,’" Owens said. "The Wall Street Journal is a book to me. Business and finance are constantly changing - constantly."

And on Aug. 26, with the start of the fall semester, will begin the 42nd year at WT for Owens.

"I’m not going to retire," he said. "I may die on the job, and if I do, it will be in class during the final. My students aren’t sure if I’m kidding. But now I’m starting to get grandchildren of my first students, not children, but grandchildren. That hurts."

Don’t believe it. Dr. Jim Owens is laughing when he says it.

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