Paying it Forward to Support Aspiring Writers and Educators

Joe and Nancy Owens of Santa Monica, California, recently established a planned gift—a bequest intention through their will—in support of the William A. Owens Memorial Endowment at Texas A&M University-Commerce.

The endowment, which the couple created in 2005, honors Joe’s uncle, William (Bill) Owens. Born in 1905, Bill was a renowned folklorist, author and professor. He valued education so highly that he climbed from an impoverished childhood on an East Texas farm to a professorship at an Ivy League university.

The endowment stands as a legacy to Bill’s perseverance and lifelong passion for creative writing and education. It provides scholarships to education majors with financial need who have an interest in creative writing.

The Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas tells how Joe’s Uncle Bill grew up on a farm in Pin Hook, northeast of Paris, Texas. His family scraped out a meager living from the poor red soil. The one-room school was only open about three months each year, but a local man loaned Bill all 25 books from his library. As Bill devoured the volumes, he resolved to devote his life to reading and study.

Young Bill started his college career at East Texas State Teachers College (now A&M-Commerce) in 1924. He later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a doctorate from the University of Iowa. He taught creative writing at Columbia University in New York City from 1945 to 1974 and published more than 10 books. One of his first autobiographical works, “This Stubborn Soil,” was turned into a PBS television program titled “Frontier Boy.”

The Owens’ generosity is inspired by a desire to honor Bill’s legacy and “pay forward” the financial help they received in the past.

“Someone provided scholarships that allowed us to go to college, and we want to do the same for others,” Joe said.

Similar to his Uncle Bill, Joe grew up on a small family farm, and money was tight. Joe recalled: “My dad was a tenant farmer, a step above a sharecropper. Although we were poor, it was not such an obvious thing to us children. Everyone else we knew was in the same situation. We had food from the field and the garden. We had milk, butter, eggs and meat from our livestock. My mother and sister always canned various things to get us through the winter months. So, we were better off than some other folks.”

Joe was encouraged to pursue higher education by his older brother, Charlie, who attended Texas A&M University. Several of Joe’s teachers also influenced the pursuit of his dreams.

“I didn’t know how I was going to be able to afford college, but I took an exam and was surprised and greatly pleased to learn that I was offered a scholarship at A&M,” Joe said. “With the scholarship, working at school and summer jobs, I was able to make ends meet until I graduated.”

Joe earned degrees from Texas A&M and the University of Illinois. For most of his career, he worked as an electrical engineer at Hughes Aircraft Company in Los Angeles.

Nancy also received scholarships that helped her pay for school. She earned degrees from the Universities of Tennessee, Illinois and Southern California. Nancy has spent most of her career as a professor at California State University-Northridge in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“Both Joe and I received scholarships that allowed us to attend college. Higher education has played such an important part in enriching our lives that we would like to pass that opportunity on to others, now and in perpetuity,” Nancy said.

Planned gifts such as the Owens’ help secure a bright future for the university and support future generations of students.

To learn more about how you can create your own legacy at A&M-Commerce, please contact Office of Gift Planning at 903.468.8681 or [email protected].