About 100 people gathered Thursday evening to honor the late Frank E. Owen by naming Batavia High School’s entertainment venue after him.
The Frank E. Owen Auditorium has a nice ring to it, his son Jim said via a pre-recorded video during the live-streamed event. Jim has been battling cancer and his medical professionals wouldn’t let him leave his treatment facility. Nevertheless, he spoke proudly of his father and suggested that the honor is about more than Frank E. Owen.
“This is to honor my father, but it’s more important to honor all the teachers and students — past, present, and future — the music department, and all those who use the auditorium,” he said. “It’s to honor the school system. He was very proud of his teachers and his students.”
A cat photobombed his talk, which brought some humor to a moment charged with emotion. Jim calmly continued talking as he acknowledged the cat’s presence with a few rubs on the head, which is an example of his kind-hearted dedication to whatever is before him. Other speakers pointed to how much they could know of Frank by watching his legendary qualities unfold within Jim.
“Jim carries on his father’s legacy by influencing the students,” High School Principal Paul Kesler said.
Frank’s former students, Patti Pacino and Liz Johnson Conway, both 1965 grads, shared how their music teacher was disciplined, down to earth and fair. He expected nothing less than a commitment from everyone.
Music has been a strong piece of Pacino’s life, thanks in large part to the lessons instilled by Frank Owen.
“He presumed we were as dedicated as he was,” she said, listing his many requirements. There was no sheet music on stage, as everyone was to memorize their songs, and no jingling of bracelets on stage, or even the chance fainting spell without consideration not to disrupt the performance, she said.
“Why would high school students put with such rules?” she said. “Because it was magical.”
Students loved music, loved to sing, and learned about teamwork along the way, she said. They all worked toward the common goal of producing lovely choral music. On one of his very first days at the city school district, Frank invited everyone to sing, and they “sang like they never sang before,” Pacino said, reading a report from 1927.
If Mary Poppins had a brother, it would be Frank E. Owen, she said.
Conway only studied with Frank for two years, but in those two short years, “I learned to like and admire” this man of music, she said. He demanded excellence with “pitch, diction and musicality,” she said.
His conducting was classy and subtle, with no large flashy moves, she said, and his secret weapon reining kids in was “the look.”
“Danny VanDetta had the paddle, and Frank Owen had the look,” she said. “Communicating through lyrics and connected to sound, he strengthened the music in this area.”
Superintendent Jason Smith, an avid musician himself, shared some of Frank Owen’s history:
He established the music department at BCSD in 1927 and created the first band and BHS Choristers, a well-known vocal group that reaped many accolades and awards, taped recordings and broadcasts during Owen’s 37-year career at Batavia. He then went on to serve on the Batavia Board of Education, including as president and was actively involved in community music.
“When the Board was considering naming the auditorium in Mr. Owen’s honor, I received numerous emails advocating for this to occur,” Smith said, reading some of those messages. A few snippets are below:
As a graduate of BHS and a member of the Choristers all my years at the High School, I can tell you that he not only instilled a love of music but a sense of service to community.
Mr. Owen was a humble master of music, respected and praised. My brothers and I were in choristers and band. My oldest brother became a music teacher with Mr. Owen’s urging, along with many other graduates.
Some of our fondest memories are the annual live Christmas (morning) broadcasts of the Chorus from the former Elks building on Ellicott Street, and the copies of that program on vinyl - blue records! - that each of us could purchase. Both Jim and I have included a link to one of those albums on our Class websites.
I can't think of a more fitting honor than naming the Auditorium after Mr. Owen - a 'home' to so many of us during our years at Batavia High School and recognition of the impact he had on so many lives.
Smith also read a tribute recited to Frank upon his retirement in 1964.
“Mr. Owen’s flair as an educator has to be classed in the greater range. Music to him is not merely an abstract subject. It is something that is a very real part of life with ramifications in history, culture and the development of civilization,” Smith said. “Those who had the advantage of his teaching and leadership gained not only exceptional appreciation and understanding of music but also of the wider spectrum.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Assemblyman Steve Hawley sent representatives to present proclamations for the occasion, and City Council President Eugene Jankowski gave one from the city with the wish that the community will find the auditorium space to be a place where folks can relax and be inspired.
The evening also included a ribbon-cutting, a vocal concert of pieces chosen by current Music Director Jane Haggett, including "Adeste Fidelis," meaning come, faithful ones, and a patriotic song since Frank always typically included one for concerts, she said. He loved "America," she said, "so we're going be doing that."
A reception cake was bedecked with the theme of the night, and memorabilia was on display for guests to see.
Top photo: Abigail Hoerbelt, who comes from a musical family, cuts the ribbon during a dedication of the Frank E. Owen Auditorium Thursday evening at Batavia High School. Music Director Jane Haggett, City Council President Eugene Jankowski, alumni and board member Liz Johnson Conway, Jenn Lendvay and Patti Pacino flank her on the left as Chamber of Commerce Interim President Tom Turnbull, Board President John Marucci, Superintendent Jason Smith and Principal Paul Kesler stand on the right. Photo by Joanne Beck.
Photo of reception cake by Joanne Beck, and memorabilia and speakers by Howard Owens.