Jane Owen, a spirit among us
This past week, a memorial service was held in New Harmony for Jane Owen. She was a great influence in my life.
Although quiet by nature, her spirit was bigger than life. She was the most humble person I have known, even though she had been all over the world and built friendships with the greatest minds of our times. She was reared in a family with immense wealth and privilege, yet she lived in a cottage in New Harmony and slept in the narrow, single bed of her childhood.
She was a bundle of fun, a wise sage, a social activist and a gracious friend. But, most of all, Jane Owen was a visionary filled with the spirit of angels. The world has sent her back to her heavenly home.
If you haven’t been to New Harmony recently, give yourself the gift of inspiration and go. Drive west on Interstate 64 past the Evansville exit and you are almost there. It is a tiny town with a rich history. In 1814, the Rev. George Rapp led a group of Separatists from the German Lutheran Church to found an utopian community on the banks of the Wabash River. In 1925, the industrialist and social philosopher Robert Owen bought the town and brought with him many great thinkers in what has been labeled the ‘Boatload of Knowledge.’
You can still see the foundations for life these folks laid while they lived there in the southwest corner of our state. Remaining are the dormitories that housed the Harmonist community, The Working Men’s Institute that displays collections of William Maclure, the naturalist, and the laboratory of geologists whose collections started the Smithsonian Museum that now stands amidst our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.
Into this setting in 1941 stepped the young bride of Kenneth Owen, a descendant of that Boatload of Knowledge. She brought her own unique talents and passion to the community. It is apparent that Jane Blaffer Owen also dreamed of an utopian society on Earth. Her personality, ideas and force are seen in ‘the roofless church,’ the Paul Johannes Tillich memorial, the innovative visitor’s center, the restored granary, the Cathedral labyrinth and the extensive art that adorns this special place.
Every time I was with Jane, I was filled with the same hope that her indomitable spirit would extend to the rest of us. She was always in awe of even small wonders in life and was thankful for acts of kindness and opportunities presented. She made it look so easy to have a positive view of mankind and to act out of appreciation for all people. But every step I took from her presence seemed to cause me to shed some of her lovely ways.
Raising her graceful arms over her head, Meryl Streep, the amazing actress, exclaimed to me after meeting Jane Owen for the first time, ‘Jane Owen is up here.’ Then, lowering her hands, she murmured, ‘The rest of us walk down here.’
It seemed the younger the age of the person I took to meet Jane, the more impressed they were with her. The young camera crew that went with me as we did a documentary of her life was spellbound by this woman in her 90s. Once, I asked my daughter, Jenny, if I had exaggerated Jane’s qualities, and she answered, ‘That would be impossible.’
The last time I was with Jane, she had received the highest honor given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She was witty and charming as she accepted her award, but she also was giving us direction as to how we could enrich our world. It was fate after we had attended all the receptions for her. Our car drove up to a rather funky looking building, and I asked her if it was her hotel. ‘No,’ she said. ‘We are going to a fundraiser for a civic cause.’ She reached in her purse and pulled out an envelope she had prepared with cash. We all immediately cried, ‘Oh, Jane, no one would expect you to pay at the fundraiser.’ ‘We are all paying!’ she announced. That night, she stood at midnight, chatting with young people as we hurriedly swiped our credit cards in the host’s machine.
At her 80th birthday party, I presented her with an honorary Lieutenant Governor’s certificate. She danced around the table and exclaimed that she wanted to do something that made a difference now that she was an honorary Lieutenant Governor. Well, believe me, she didn’t need that paper certificate to make a huge difference in the world she graced.
Now, things have changed. Jane Owen’s influence will come to us in new ways as those who knew her pass on something she gave to them. I can only pray that someday you see a tiny bit of her in me. But more profoundly, you, too, can breathe in that spirit of the wonders of the universe. It still prevails at a place called New Harmony.