Genuine, kind, indelible: Jim Owen left a lasting impact on Batavia
For any new journalist not familiar with Jim Owen, he quickly became ‘that guy who showed up again’ to local events, and became a beloved and indelible character amongst local media and citizens alike — dubbed the Mayor of Redfield Parkway for his advocacy and presence on that westside city street — and was a knowledgeable and popular fixture of Batavia and even during his brief stay at Crossroads House, where his rest was often sprinkled with phone calls and visits from friends, students, school staff, musicians and his cat Rosie.
His investments were large — from providing buckets of history about the city and school district, its buildings and bells and notables, to celebrating and helping to fund upkeep of the newly named Frank E. Owen High School Auditorium for his father’s contributions to the early beginnings of the music program, and filling a portion of GO ART! with local memorabilia — Jim Owen was practically a household name for many.
After a months-long, hard fought battle with cancer, the former and formidable teacher, coach, advocate, supporter, neighbor, historian, friend and smiling face at so many city events, Jim, 79, succumbed to the ill effects on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.
Just take a look at his Facebook page, and one can get a glimpse at the love and admiration he drew from the community. And just as a tree’s roots draw water into the soil and strengthens its foundation — so too has the community been shored up by what it has drawn from the likable Jim Owen.
There were many lucky ones who got to know the Mayor more deeply, including longtime Redfield neighbors Rich and Linda Conroy. Friends, yes, but more so, they became family over the years, Linda said. Jim would come over for holiday gatherings, and they exchanged a lot of inner circle stories and jokes, she said.
“Jim liked to tell the story about how he lived with three women in Sackett’s Harbor when he was a young man right out of college,” Linda said. “Of course, he then would explain that the women were elderly, and he was just renting a room!”
As most people grew to know Jim’s sense of humor and quick wit, they would hear his quips, such as when he told Linda that he was paid weekly. “Very weakly,” he’d joke.
“Also, he liked to tell us about how long of a commute it was for him when he was visiting our house across the street,” she said. “‘You gotta have a little sense of humor,’ he would often say.”
One of her all-time favorite memories is when he attended her daughter’s graduation party when he was a substitute teacher at the city school district in 2006. All of her daughter's friends were “fascinated” that Mr. Owen was the Conroy’s neighbor.
“The kids kept saying how ‘cool’ it was,” Linda said.
Of course, not to leave his beloved late sister Kathy out of the picture, there was an old photo posted online taken 50 years earlier that tagged Jim, and some ladies had replied how handsome he was, which seemed to bother his sibling. One had even commented about what a “hottie” Jim was, to which he couldn’t stop talking and smiling, “which annoyed his sister even more,” Linda said.
Perhaps one of his biggest claims to fame was having taught the current state Governor Kathy Hochul in typing class as a teacher in Hamburg. Hochul, while a member of Congress, visited Batavia and attended a Muckdogs game with Jim, and more recently reached out to him with encouraging words by phone and through email.
"Jim Owen had a profound impact on me, my siblings and countless others as a teacher and coach at Hamburg Central Schools. Always upbeat and encouraging, I was proud to call him a friend later in life, and I will always remember our conversations, including earlier this fall and shortly before he passed,” Hochul said. “I am thankful to have known Mr. Owen, and I send my deepest condolences to his family, friends, and all who knew him - he will be dearly missed."
Jim was also friends with state Assemblyman Steve Hawley, who first met him as a senior summer parks program counselor. Jim coordinated all of the kids coming to Hawley’s farm to build a float on one of the hay wagons for the summer parks parade.
“He liked to talk about that often,” Hawley said. “His Father, Frank Owen, was the music director when I was in Batavia High Choristers. He and his sister Kathy were insurance clients of mine, and Jim bought new vehicles often and was always reminding me that he wanted the best prices possible because, as a retired school teacher, he was on a fixed income.”
Hawley was also aware of Owen’s mayor title, due in large part to his work to get stone pillars at Redfield and Main Street refurbished.
“He was very interested in young people, history and politics. Although a fairly conservative-minded individual, he was always supportive of his former student at Hamburg High School, Kathleen (Courtney) Hochul, when she became Congresswoman, Lieutenant Governor and eventually Governor,” Hawley said. “As Jim’s health declined recently, a friend called me and wondered if I could get word to the governor that Jim’s time was dwindling and his spirits would be buoyed if she could call him ‘one last time.’ I had a very down-to-earth and reminiscing talk with him, and he mentioned that his former student ‘Kathy’ had called and how much he appreciated it. He seemed at peace.”
Jim was as consistent as he was gregarious. Always ready with a word or two in exchange for a greeting, he often liked to share special moments in his memory: when he taught Gov. Kathy Hochul in high school typing class, met up with a bunch of students for a chat, golfed with R. Stephen Hawley Sr., the current state assemblyman’s father, and even how he gave “that scoop” to a reporter. He seemed to love sharing those memories with the people who knew them best, as he also peppered his days with offering nuggets of information, history, and knowledge that he wanted to impart.
Batavia Middle School teacher Sarah Gahagan knows well of Jim’s giving spirit. In fact, she learned more interesting tidbits from him than from anyone else in the world, she said. And, “oddly enough,” they weren’t always in the form of an actual conversation.
“On many occasions, I would walk in my classroom and find a large manilla envelope lying on my keyboard. I immediately knew who it was from and couldn't wait to rip it open and see the next topic I would be learning about,” Gahagan said. “Packets of information on various topics — ranging from the history of Barbie dolls to the origins of my son's name, Grant. Jim was insistent I learned everything possible about Ulysses S. Grant. Jim enjoyed researching, highlighting the key points and even leaving little notes in the margin for me.
“I LOVED finding these envelopes. They made my day. I hung up a picture he printed for me on my bulletin board — never thinking he'd notice — literally the next time he saw me, he commented on it. To this day, I have no clue how he knew it was there,” she said.
She learned a lot about the mysterious bell that Jim kept talking about and wanted desperately to uncover and bring out for all to enjoy. He kept on about it for quite some time.
“Well, it didn’t happen quickly,” Gahagan said. “He would laugh and joke and mentioned it quite a bit. And I mean quite a bit. Again, persistent to get someone to listen. Well, low and behold, they did, and this was a great day. I loved seeing this mission of his come to fruition.”
And in turn, Jim supported every endeavor that she pursued. He would hang out at the middle school, give fist bumps and tell stories and corny jokes that made even the toughest kids crack a smile, she said.
"He was a genuine person who truly cared for the kids. He took time to make those personal connections that sometimes fall to the wayside,” Gahagan said. “Watching Jim's interactions was always a pleasant experience. Jim treated everyone with kindness and received the same respect back in return. The students truly enjoyed engaging with him. Jim was always himself: caring, engaging, friendly, and a true friend to all; it's a trait I always admired in him. He had some clutch lines that were a staple before breaks and holidays, and although predictable in nature, oddly enough, they never got old.”
It didn’t seem to matter, whether it was students, teachers or administrators, Jim got along with them all. Superintendent Jason Smith posted a message online for the city school district community, and a concert was performed in memory of Jim on Thursday. Smith also shared some thoughts with The Batavian about Jim, who he believed to be “a class act and a man of high character, dignity, and humility, and coupled with a razor-sharp sense of humor and compassion for others — he is an educator’s educator.”
“I first came to know Jim as a family friend at Horseshoe Lake many years ago, and then while in college, I worked for Jim as his lifeguard. He was always proud that I was ‘his’ lifeguard, and he and I would always joke about that—and Jim—with classic Jim humor—would credit himself for my success,” Smith said. “When my children had him in school as a sub—and they loved having him as a sub like all the other Batavia students—he would always be sure to share with them our lifeguarding story.
Smith said, as have so many others, that Jim has been so “truly beloved” by the Batavia district. Smith saw that firsthand during the Frank E. Owen Auditorium dedication last summer.
“I saw that loud and clear when he was swarmed by students,” Smith said. “It was such a heartfelt and genuine moment between a teacher and his students -- something I will never forget. Jim was so proud when the district named the auditorium after his father, and in his true, humble nature, he was quick to credit all those music teachers that came after his father for the success of music at BCSD.
“He gently prodded us to push forward with restoring the bells at the Middle School, and I know how thrilled he was with that project,” Smith said.
District Clerk Britt Witkop got to know Jim when passing him in the hallway or when spending a few minutes talking history with him, she said. He was a “solid dedicated part of the Batavia community and our school district” as a substitute for many years, and truly loved being part of the school system and enjoyed the students, she said.
“He always said that as a substitute, he did his best to keep the class aligned while the teacher was out, and to be a role model to the kids as well as listening and learning from them. He often said the kids taught him a lot about technology, and I could tell he appreciated that because he loved to learn,” Witkop said. “He had a strong sense of honor towards his parents, something we don't always see, which I felt was an admirable quality about him. Over the years, I got to see Mr. Owen more often, and we would talk whenever he came to sub at the high school. I enjoyed my time with him and learned a lot. When you got to know Mr. Owen, you could tell he was a hard worker and genuine person.”
When Jim became sick last year and visits decreased, there was a palpable emptiness that was felt at the district, she said, as “all of us had become accustomed to his presence.”
“Mr. Owen changed so many lives for the better, and I, as well as many others, will truly miss him. I feel lucky to have had him in my life,” she said. He was loved by more people than I think he could have ever imagined. Rest in Peace, my friend.”
Probably even Jim would be ready for a chuckle right about now. How about it, teacher Allison Chua? Jim liked to tell a weekly joke: since he has been so good, he suggested that she was going to give him the next two days off. A joke he always told on Fridays, Chua said.
That’s how Jim was, she said: lively, positive and engaging. During visits to see Jim in December, she unabashedly shared that “we love Jim” and “our children love Jim,” and explained why.
“I feel honored to be asked to write a message about Jim Owen. I admire him for all that he means to BCSD and to our town. Jim always shows love for the people around him. When Jim would sub here, he would make a point to stop by rooms, peek in, and check in ‘Hey, how are you doing? You are looking great today!’ He made jokes with the kids and taught us all lessons about Batavia and life in general,” Chua said at the time. “He loved music, and (me) being a mom of music kids, he was the first to compliment both my sons on their performances and talents, acknowledging the amazing music teachers here at BHS. He came to the productions and made every kid feel like the star.”
Her son Aden, who is quiet and reserved, loved talking to Jim, who would first ask, “how are you, young man?” turning to his mom and asking, “who is this, your sister?”
“I would laugh, and I would say big age gap,” she said. “Jim showed this community what Batavia meant to him and his family. His pride makes us all a little more proud. I am so glad my children have memories with Jim Owen. Jim's heart was open, and his love for this community is an inspiration. He makes me want to ‘Be Like Jim.’ The support that surrounds him is a testimony of a life well lived and a man well loved.”
The love of the arts went well beyond music in the Owen household. His sister, who passed away in 2019, was an accomplished photographer. Natalie Owen, his mother, was president of the Richmond Memorial Library Board of Trustees. Robert Owen, his brother, was an author and actor.
Owen leaned heavily into athletics and admitted he had no artistic ability himself but he was always a firm supporter of the arts.
Based on his support of GO ART!, the nonprofit arts facility hosted an exhibit of Kathy’s photography in 2019, and in 2021, the room that had held the exhibit was dedicated as the Owen Library in honor of Frank Owen and Kathy Owen, complete with a white baby grand piano and a collection of art books.
Gregory Hallock, executive director of GO ART!, said he first met Jim Owen in 2017 during “small business Saturday.”
Jim stopped in to buy some art, “and of course, he haggled us down on their prices," Hallock said. “I helped him carry the pieces out to his car, and he said, ‘Let me be the first Mayor to wish you a Merry Christmas’ and gave me a box of chocolates."
Hallock and Owen grew close while working together to make the Owen Library a reality, and Owen shared something with Hallock that he rarely talked about in public: He was adopted by Frank and Natalie.
“Jim loved all children, and they all loved him back," Hallock said. “But he had a special connection with my children. He told them that he was just like them. He was chosen. My children are my everything, and he is right, they were chosen. I do not walk around saying they are my adopted children. They are my children, plain and simple. Jim and his siblings were chosen as well. This is not something he told most people, and I feel so incredibly humbled that he felt comfortable sharing this with my kids and me. My children loved him. I loved him.”
Batavia is a city of characters, and Jim Owen was one of its most distinctive and memorable characters, author and screenwriter Bill Kauffman said.
He was only nine when Jim was supervisor of MacArthur Park and coach of Kauffman’s Midgets baseball team. That forged a relationship and opportunity to see Jim Owen’s passions.
“Jim loved Batavia. He loved everything about it. He loved its history. He loved Redfield Parkway. He loved the city schools,” Kauffman said. “Although he liked to joke about how tight he was with the dollar, Jim was generous with his time, his energy, his attention, and his overflowing affection for his hometown.”
Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian and, in one of Jim's enduring jokes, Jim’s "older brother" (Owens was born in 1961, the year Owen graduated from BHS), was visiting Jim at UMMC, and it was right after Gov. Kathy Hochul and her brothers had called him along with some of their classmates he coached while teaching in Hamburg.
“He is very proud of both his connection to Batavia and Hamburg,” Owens said. “He said, ‘I have dual citizenship. I'm a citizen of Hamburg and a citizen of Batavia.’”
Former newspaper Managing Editor Mark Graczyk had conducted a Q&A interview with Jim about 15 years ago and recalls how “very gracious” his interviewee was.
“He showed me his extensive baseball card collection and shared memories of when his father Frank, who was music director at Batavia High School, was able to bring the march king John Philip Sousa to the high school in the 1920s,” Graczyk said. “Jim also shared Backward Glance's historical photos with the paper and helped me with some of the stories I wrote for my Hidden History blog. Sometimes he would stop in the office to offer story ideas or just to shoot the breeze. He was always friendly and encouraging. A great guy and much loved in the Batavia community.”
Don’t be surprised if, at some point in the warmer future, the city school district has a frozen treat day. But not just any frozen treat, and not just any colored frozen treat. It will be an orange popsicle day in memory of Jim if it happens. Gahagan only learned of this ritual while spending more recent time at Crossroads House, she said.
Not typically encountering a grumpy Jim Owen, she discovered that he could get rather feisty over a few particular things — orange popsicles being one of them. He would have the treat to help mask the bad taste of his medicine.
One of the kind nurses said Ok, Jim, red or purple today? ORANGE, he said firmly. She laughed and said, you already finished the orange, I checked. Red or purple?” Gahagan said. “ORANGE he said again. He ended up with red that night, but I made sure I bought two boxes and delivered them in the morning, and told them the orange are for Jim and anyone else can have the rest.”
She has suggested to the superintendent that “an orange popsicle day in honor of Jim would be nice.”
This reporter is going to break from my role for a moment to share how glad I am to have spent some time with Jim on a recent visit to Crossroads House. He was a bit tired but wanted to engage, ask questions, talk, and listen as I read items from around his room and shared about the blizzard that hit the county.
As I was about to leave, he firmly held my hand and asked if I could stay a little longer. Yes, Jim, I can stay. I’m not so sure it was anything about me personally as it was about his need to be with people. That was the Jim Owen I’ve known since the day we met. And there wasn’t a time that we spoke that he didn’t remind me about giving me a little scoop for a story, and eventually admitting that it got him in some hot water. But, he said, it was the right thing to do.
And there you have it, two principles of Jim that I believe so many people grew to admire: his love of people and his kind ways of wanting to do the right thing. He will be remembered. He will be missed. And he will leave a mark on the City of Batavia and the hearts of its citizens. Good night Jim, may you be in peace.
Top Photo of Jim Owen with his proclamation from City Council deeming him as Mayor of Redfield Parkway, with his cat Rosei during a visit to Crossroads House, with Linda Conroy, wearing his Thanksgiving hat, with his sister Kathy, and another favorite Kathy, Gov. Kathy Hochul, accepting the Mayor proclamation from City Council President Eugene Jankowski Jr., with the late Stephen Hawley Sr., who he apparently reminded at the 18th hole that they were tied because Hawley had "forgotten" a few strokes; with teacher Sarah Gahagan, at the new Frank E. Owen auditorium sign with students and Superintendent Jason Smith and Principal Paul Kesler; getting a visit from Aden Chua, at GO ART!, with Sarah Gahagan at a sporting event, with Kathy Hochul at a Muckdogs game; and in his neighborhood. Photos are by Joanne Beck, Howard Owens, and submitted.