BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 10/06/2014

John Owen, 1929-2014: An appreciation

A calm, wise man for every dyspeptic newsroom, or for a frenzied championship boxing match in the African jungle, John Owen was a pro’s pro — and a wizard in the kitchen.

John Owen / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

No wilder a spectacle has been seen in sports, before or since: Heavyweight champion George Foreman defending his title against the once and future ring king, Muhammad Ali, in a makeshift stadium in an improbably exotic site, Kinshasa, Zaire. Amid the pandemonium of the immortal “Rumble in the Jungle” on Oct. 30, 1974, imperturbable John Owen quickly crafted the scene for readers of his Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports column after the massive Foreman dropped to the canvas in the eighth round:

“When it was over, drums were pounding and 60,000 Africans were dancing in the seats and aisles of the outdoor stadium. Newspaper bonfires blazed high in the stands, lighting the morning’s blackness. The chant went on: ‘Ali! Ali! Ali!’ It was a scene like 19th century religious rites on the Dark Continent. The worshipping, uncontrolled crowds danced around their prophet . . . ”

Four years later, nearly to the day, Owen witnessed another implausible knockout. At the Kingdome press box, the Seahawks were on their way to a 20-17 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos when a commotion arose in the second row behind the front-row seats occupied by Owen and fellow P-I columnist Steve Rudman.

They turned around to see a man down: Royal Brougham. A P-I reporter, columnist, editor and wondrous promoter since before World War I, Brougham tumbled out of his seat and was out on the floor.

“Call the paper,” Owen, spinning into action, told Rudman calmly. “Tell them Royal had collapsed, was not conscious, and that a story would be forthcoming when we had details.”

Owen, who was hired by Brougham in 1957, was made sports editor/columnist in 1968 and became the chronicler of record as Seattle became a big-time sports town, went to Brougham’s side. As paramedics arrived, Owen gave them complete details of Brougham’s recent medical history. Brougham was taken to a hospital, where, on Oct. 30, 1978, he died at 84 of a ruptured aorta — not, as civic legend would have it, of one Kingdog too many.

That Sunday, Owen, the consummate professional journalist, banged out a story on Brougham’s health crisis and a column on the Seahawks loss.

Owen felt things deeply. But fear, sadness, ridiculous deadlines or foolish bosses never compromised his cool demeanor, incisive command or quick wit. And because he was a relentless runner before the world ever heard of jogging, and because he was a cook of such surpassing skill that foul food was unlikely to have ever passed his lips — except for the Korean War, where he was an Army cryptographer — it seemed likely that he possessed all the qualities to become the first to live forever.

How cosmically criminal that it proved untrue. Owen died Friday at home in Edmonds. Heart failure, the family said. Heart ache, for all of us who were privileged to know him.

If you are expecting objective reporting here, stop reading now.

Rudman and I were hired to the P-I by Owen, Steve from a Salt Lake City newspaper, me from the late Bellevue Journal-American. Both of us owe much to, and learned much from, Owen. We shared a similar view of our boss, put best by Steve:

“John had a wonderfully understated sense of humor and never, in a business rife with long knives, had an unkind word about anyone. He kept a clear head when everyone around him was losing theirs. He encouraged excellence but demanded nothing. He led by example, probably the best example I’ve ever seen.

“There aren’t many in journalism who can juggle editorial and administrative duties simultaneously, especially with a staff as large and diverse as was the P-I’s in Owen’s heyday. He did both. He had an extraordinary talent for guiding rather than manipulating — and he did it with a sense of humor. I’ve always admired him for that. I couldn’t have done it.”

The P-I sports department in those days was a Jack Nicholson short of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I’ll never forget the informal competition between two of my writer heroes, J Michael Kenyon and Blaine Johnson. Known as “One for the Thumb,” they raced to see who could be the first to a fifth marriage.

Didn’t matter to Owen. He and his wife, known in his column as Alice the Artist, recently celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary, but he understood that in filling out a newsroom, just as with a sports team roster, talent trumps.

Talent was in places others of the era did not look. Owen hired the market’s first woman sportswriter, Chris Swanson, and hired the first African-American sportswriter, David DuPree, a former University of Washington football player who went on to a long career at the Washington Post and USA Today.

Owen did all of this hiring, budgeting and phone-answering while writing six columns a week, until he turned over the management job in 1980. So when I hear today’s journalists lament all the requirements of tweeting, blogging and taking photos, I’m thinking they haven’t even lifted a journalistic pick, much less broken one.

On top of that workload, Owen wrote for a paid hobby too — for 35 years, he was the “The Intermediate Eater.” He wrote 1,800 cooking columns that provided 3,400 recipes to many people who had no idea this food funnyman was also a sports columnist. Even after his 1993 retirement from the P-I, he kept up the Intermediate Eater column in the newspaper until 2006.

Rudman recalled getting the full-meal deal when several staffers were invited to the Bellevue home of John and Alice around Christmas.

“They had several tables set up, all arrayed with a huge variety of ‘Intermediate Eater’ appetizers,” he said. “I worked my way through each table, trying everything. John had a genius for creating far-better-than-restaurant-quality comfort foods — so much so that I’ve often thought he missed his calling.

“He was a well-respected sports editor, but a highly creative — I’d say national class — culinary artist. It’s not surprising that his cookbooks sold so well. I’ve got a few of them and have tried several of John’s recipes over the years. Even though I’ve strictly followed his instructions, John’s always tasted better. Best comfort food ever.”

He turned IE’s cuisine scene into seven books, published by the P-I, that sold 38,000 copies — the final four illustrated by Alice the Artist, including a signed one to me, which I read for the jokes.

I remember telling him it didn’t taste very good. He looked at me funny.

“When I turn this column over to you,” he said, “please call it ‘The Indiscriminate Eater.’”

Always wanted the last word with John. Never got it.

Besides the Ali-Foreman fight — Owen first met Ali in 1968 at a Bellevue church — Owen covered six Olympics, numerous Super Bowls, World Series, Rose Bowls, boxing championships and introduced to Seattle an assortment of sports characters whose collective charm has gone largely missing in contemporary sports.

He was a seven-time winner of the state’s sportswriter of the year award by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, was published three times in the national anthology Best Sports Stories of the Year, and had more than 50 stories published in national magazines.

John is survived by Alice, son David and daughter Kathy (Greg Relaford); grandchildren Rosalyn and Sarah, and great grandchildren Connor and Tyler. A service is planned for Oct. 25; details are pending.

After succeeding him as a P-I columnist in 1993 and lasting until the newspaper was garroted in 2009, we talked about Brougham’s longevity. He began at the P-I as a teenager, turned over the editorship to Owen in 1968 and lasted until the Steve Largent-Jim Zorn era of the Seahawks, which was around the time I began thinking of twisting metaphors for a living.

We realized that not only did the three of us span almost 100 years of sports journalism in Seattle, all of us were at that 1978 Seahawks-Broncos game.

John can now report directly to Royal, over a pot of Puget Sound Stew (his first IE recipe), that the near-simultaneous loss by the Seahawks to the Broncos and Royal’s demise have been resoundingly avenged.


YourThoughts

  • Schaefdawg

    Thanks for the great article. Have been a longtime follower of the Seattle sports scene and have missed John’s excellent writing. Didn’t have a clue as to the talents of the man. Makes honoring his memory event more worthwhile. He gave us great perspective. Thanks John, for sharing your many talents with us all. R.I.P.

    • art thiel

      Great thoughts, Schaef.

  • da kid

    Truly a class act and a superb, old-school sports journalist. I read him every day for decades, but sadly, never got to try his cooking.

    Btw, David DuPree was a Class of ’64 Franklin High grad, and a pretty good athlete in his own right.

    • art thiel

      Like any soldier, I was honored to serve under a good general.

  • John Levesque

    Classy column, Art, about the classiest guy I’ve known in journalism.

    • art thiel

      Had to keep to his standards. Thanks John.

  • Matt712

    A fine send-off to a fine writer. Funny thing, your recent masterful piece (http://sportspressnw.com/2190291/2014/thiel-seahawks-broncos-go-marvelous-for-all) on the Seahwks vs Broncos game had me thinking of Mr. Owen’s column. Something in the writing took me back to those days when I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sports page after my dad was through with it. Indeed (John liked that word a lot as I recall), I could almost smell newsprint.

    And it got me thinking about all you guys – John Owen, yourself, Rudman, Moore and Farnsworth among others; and even Kelly (yes, we got both papers) who never met a metaphor he didn’t butcher! (BTW, I miss him… I think the way I missed Frank Burns when he left MASH.) Anyway, I feel it appropriate to make the statement now, that we Seattle sports fans, although seldom spoiled with excellence from our teams, have most certainly been treated to a tradition of excellence from our sportswriters over the years. Add to that our game broadcasters (Pete Gross, Niehaus, Calabro, and Raible), and one begins to imagine – at least in part – what it is that makes this fan base so different, so special.

    So, I’m taking this opportunity – as melancholy as it may be – to say thanks. Thank you John Owen for fostering that tradition. And thank you Art and Steve for finding a way to keep it going even after the printing presses shut down.

    • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

      You hear a lot of “back in the day”comments in referring to how good we once had it and if there was a tailor made situation for this it would be Jims contribution to all in his writing for our region. What an amazing man with amazing skills. It was a pleasure to read anthing with his fingerprints upon it. Thanks , Art for a wonderful piece.

      • art thiel

        It was the minimum that could be done for a man of John’s grace.

    • art thiel

      Your inclusiveness is rewarding, Matt. Those of us in the biz sometimes think we are writing into the void. Good to hear from those who care.

  • fredbrack

    Masterful tribute, Arthur. No editor in my experience ever ran a news department with a lighter touch. I vividly remember John’s good sense, progressive worldview, keen humor, and recipe for salmon steaks with mustard and apple juice.

    • art thiel

      I am combing the archives for that recipe. Can’t think of a better tribute than a damn fine meal.

  • Jamo57

    Thoughts and prayers and my sincere sympathies to John’s family, friends and colleagues which I am sure the lines blurred between these categories years and years ago.

    I moved to the Puget Sound region in 1975 and quickly became a reader of the P-I. So much talent there which made witnessing the emerging of Seattle as a ‘major league market’ so memorable (along with the roller coast rides keeping that status since).
    Best wishes to all of you. Cherish the memories and having been his friend.

    • art thiel

      Well said, Jamo. Thanks.

  • jafabian

    I loved reading Mr. Owens columns over the years and missed them terribly when the PI closed down. Especially remember looking forward to them during the Sonics glory years. Some great reads there.

    • art thiel

      No one could turn a column faster and better than John. I sat in awe.

  • seapilot69

    Fine work here Art. I grew up reading all of you starting with the Huskies unfathomable Rose Bowl win in 1960 when I was just seven years old. What a nice send off, chock full of memories. By the way, J. Michael Kenyon is still one of my all time favorite characters. His radio show from back in the day, 7-11 sports was the best.

    • art thiel

      There was no one like J Michael, and John had a big hand in his return from an earlier firing. Couldn’t have been more different than John, but that made no difference to him.

      • RadioGuy

        Ahhh, J Michael Kenyon. The first time I’d ever heard of him was watching him referee for Superstar Championship Wrestling (Dean Silverstone’s promotion) in the early 70′s. His body would move in one direction, his hair in another. You’re right, Art…J Michael was one of a kind.

        • art thiel

          He’ll be pleased you remembered.

  • reader

    I’ll be brief, remembering that brevity is much to be valued: A wonderful piece Art. Many thanks for sharing.

    • art thiel

      Glad you enjoyed. Was the least I could do.

  • Casey Corr

    John was an excellent human being. Thanks for doing this, Art.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for saying so, Casey. Amazing how he stayed so steady in the P-I maelstrom.

  • RadioGuy

    The terms that immediately came to mind when I saw the headline have already been used, but I’ll repeat them anyway: “Class act” and a “pro’s pro.”

    I didn’t read the P-I as much as I did the Times growing up because the latter was what my parents subscribed to, but I always respected both John Owen and Georg Meyers for their level-headed columns and “adult-in-the-room” sensibilities. I appreciate that much more the older guys who never lost sight that sports, in the end, are still games.

    • art thiel

      John and Georg always had great perspectives. Haven’t seen much and lived well, they knew stuff the rest of didn’t.

      • art thiel

        Meant “having” seen much . . .

  • Tian Biao

    my dad used to clip the Intermediate Eater columns and put them on the refrigerator and eventually he began to try them, and in the end he became a pretty good cook. He liked the columns just as much as he liked the recipes: witty and fun to read. ps I agree with all of the above – excellent tribute, a pleasure to read, it’s nice to be reminded of all the good people in the world.

    • art thiel

      John was among the best, Tian. Thanks for sharing your fridge door. John adorned many, I think.

  • 1coolguy

    Here, here – well done Art. J.O. always wrote an entertaining and informative column.
    Steve and you are keeping alive the local tradition of sports writing excellence that began with Royal!

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Cool. Tell your friends.

  • former P-I reader

    My dad was a sports fanatic, who worked as a waiter. When he got off work, he would drive to the P-I building, where he’d buy the first edition of the P-I as it was being loaded into the trucks. As a result, I grew up reading John Owen’s columns and admired its substance. I miss the P-I.

    • art thiel

      In honor of John and your dad, and maybe a little Russell Wilson, I hoist my glass at midnight.

  • dinglenuts

    Let me join the chorus of thanks. I remember John as much for the Intermediate Eater as for his sports columns, and I loved reading both.

    • art thiel

      I’m just the typist, ding. John did the doing.

  • Big

    Well done Art. Mr. Owen touched many lives in a positive manner. I for one.

    • art thiel

      Glad you were part of the fun, big.

  • juliusvrooder

    Art-fully done as always. I am sorry you lost your friend. I am allergic to newsprint. It gives me asthma something awful. Still, I recall me and my dad ripping into the PI every day, savoring every word you and John wrote in the 80′s and 90′s. It was always worth the wheezing. Still is, at least your part of it, though I am glad the wheezing is no longer part of the process.
    I agree that our community has been well served by the tradition of excellence in local sports journalism (Kelly aside. Thankfully.) I wish the old man could have lived to see you and Rudman carrying the torch forward. I am glad that John did. Hang in there Art…

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Julius. I’ve had readers tell me I made them sick, but you may the first to have meant it literally.

  • Jeff Jurgensen

    “Smoosh it all together”
    Words to live by from The Intermediate Eater who is surely now an Advanced Angel.

    • art thiel

      Dunno if John invented the verb, but cuisine converstion needs more smooshing.

  • Christopher K. Fair

    As one who spent many evenings in the P-I Sportsroom after my dad joined the staff there in 1968 (Don Fair), you have done a wonderful job of capturing the heart of an amazing person. John could light a room up with his smile, and he and wife Alice were always such wonderful people to be around. Your words painted familiar pictures in my mind, as you and Steve were obviously good students of a true master. Thank-you for remininding us of the value of the quiet Renaissance man who touched so many with his words and his actions.

  • Scott R.

    So long, John. … Have a lot of stories about John, but I remember the day Royal Brougham keeled over in the Kingdome pressbox. He went out with his boots on, as they used to say in the Old West. The day was Oct. 29, 1978 — and the game featured the Seahawks’ original “12th Man”. Denver had missed a field goal, but the referee flagged the Seahawks for having a 12th man on the field. Dave Kraayeveld was that 12th man. Used to the Cowboy policy of using the same defense on field goals as the previous down, the ex-Dallas player remained on the field. The Broncos made good the second attempt to win the game.

    • art thiel

      The 12th Man game — yes! Great recall.

      You were among the many fine hires by John. And coming from sturdy Montana stock, as did John and I, we hoist to the brotherhood of the cowpuncher.

  • Blaine Johnson

    As others have commented, Artfully done, indeed! I got the news about John’s passing while driving across Arizona and NM, providing hours to ponder my experiences at the PI, beginning with John hiring me in 1968. The old pea-green sports department, a cave literally ink stained, full of smoke, clattering teletypes, and the bottle in the desk drawer. Brougham would ramble in, toss some rumpled, pasted-together papers on the desk and say, “See if you can clean this up a bit, kid.” And through it all John found the next generation of writers, saw things in us we didn’t even know we had, and herded the circus mostly forward with all the attributes of organization, creativity, profound personal productivity and humor that you noted. Each of us, if we are lucky enough, encounters someone who launches us on our career path. John was that for me. At the time,we don’t realize how profound that opportunity will eventually be valued. I am glad I was able to express that to John in a letter several years ago. I sense this is a sentiment shared by many of us. Thanks again for your thoughtful reflection.

    I am happy to report, per your reference to the marriage-a-thon between J Michael and me, the “Thumb” won – as Cathy and I celebrate our 33rd anniversary today.

    Blaine Johnson

    • art thiel

      Great to hear from you, Blaine. Thanks for flashing us back to an earlier world. I came in around the end of that era, and now “our” era is being convulsed by change too. Can’t say it’s better or worse, but I do miss the bottle in the drawer. Which doesn’t mean traditions can’t be revived.

      I’d enjoy catching up sometime. If you are so moved: artthiel@sportspressnw.com.

      And you are a winner! 33 years. Wow. Now there’s a story . . . Congrats.

  • Ray Collins

    Thank you for a fine tribute to an extraordinary person . . .

    • art thiel

      You were a fine part of that P-I scene Ray. Thanks for writing.