Dr. O’dell Owens and his family. From left, are Justin, Morgan, Marchelle, Chris and Dr. Owens. Photo provided
By Michelee Donaldson and Dan Yount
Dr. O’dell Moreno Owens, M.D., MPH, a Cincinnati treasure, retires March 31 after serving 38 years in Cincinnati as a groundbreaking physician, educator, valued leader of various institutions and boards, and much sought after speaker.
Dr. Owens combined his lifelong love of science and his desire to help people into a successful career in medicine. His personal motto is “help people help themselves,” something he’s lived throughout the course of his professional life.
A native Cincinnatian, Owens is a graduate of Woodward High School and later Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He spent his third year of college at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, as a foreign exchange student.
He had flunked out of Walnut Hills High School and had to repeat the eighth grade so he could finish at Woodward. “I was taking history, art and shop. I told my counselor I need to go to college, and she just laughed at me. ‘You just flunked out of Walnut Hills, so that would not be possible,’ she told me.”
However, as a medical student, he served as president of his medical school class, captain of the medical school basketball team and as a member of the board of trustees of Antioch College.
He said his time at the college galvanized his desire to be an agent of social change. “You really had to stand for something,” he said. “You couldn’t be isolated. It was a place where they cultivated people to be concerned about the outside world.”
Owens went on to Yale University School of Medicine, from which he graduated in 1976 with an M.D. and master’s of public health. He received the Irving Friedman Award for Outstanding Chief Resident while in the obstetrics/ gynecology department at Yale Medical School. He went on to work at Harvard Medical School, where he was a fellow in reproductive endocrinology and infertility for two years.
“I was the first African American and only 12th person to do a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology at Harvard,” he said. “I came to Cincinnati as the first reproductive endocrinologist; there was no other specialist in the city at that time.”
When Dr. Owens returned to Cincinnati to work at the University Hospital Medical in 1982, he established an in vitro fertilization lab, a then-new field of study in medicine. In November 1988, he achieved the city’s first successful in vitro fertilization conception and pregnancy from a frozen embryo.
In 2004, after leaving his medical practice to serve as medical director for a major insurance company and then to help launch a Cincinnati-based non-profit organization devoted to early childhood education, Owens was elected as Hamilton County coroner to become the first African American to hold executive office in the county. He made needed reforms in the office, and he was reelected in 2008, setting a record for the most votes a candidate ever received in the history of Hamilton County.
“When you are morally right, that will resonate in the hearts of the people. I am very proud of the fact I won and very proud of my reelection,” he said.
His platform? The higher the high school graduation rate, the lower the homicide rate. Dr. Owens wanted to use the coroner’s office in two ways: directly accessing young people in Hamilton County and making the office more about, as he put it, life than death. He made more than 180 talks about making the right choices to local students while coroner.
He has said he is concerned about children getting an early preschool start in their education, since the most formative brain functions occur during child’s first years of development. Studies have shown that if they are behind in their reading level when they reach third grade, they may never catch up, eventually lose interest in school and drop out, he explains.
“We have ZIP codes full of students who did not finish high school,” he commented. “Not only are those kids academically lacking, many of them are battling emotional problems that are caused by the absence of love in the home and an unsafe home, sleeping in uncomfortable conditions such as couch-sleeping in various homes, hunger, lead poisoning, low self-festeem, even living on the streets, to name several.’’
In a recent year, more than 25% of the students at one high school were homeless, he said.
He said he saw kids in school eating as if it was their last meal. His wife, Marchelle, he said, is a teacher who had a student who came to school with holes in his pants. She bought him a pair of new pants to wear. But he returned to school the next day wearing the old pants, saying his mother had taken them and sold them.
Owens said he knows that feeling, because he once could not afford a new winter coat and was teased at school. His mother, who he says never missed a teacher-parent day or a report card, died at the age of 29 when he was 11 years old. Living then really got difficult in a house full of seven children. He was so embarrassed about his ragged coat he decided to steal a coat from a department store, but his grandmother talked him out of that. He got busy working several jobs until he could buy his own new coat. He said he appreciated his mother and grandmother for raising him in church and Sunday school.
“Actually, while the West End at that time was a good, safe community in which to be raised, yet when you are poor, it’s difficult. In fact, I struggled so much as a child that college calculus was a breeze,” he said.
“It is so important that you hold your child in your arms, that he or she feels that love early on, for, if not, they later on will believe those who run the streets really do love them.” he added.
Owens says he looks at the key to helping troubled children this way: “Education is a gift from our past to the present to ensure our future. So, the greatest gift you can give a child is how to read. God’s children need help. So volunteer to do this, to help them and to form a valued relationship with them.’’
In 2010, Owens was unanimously appointed the fifth president of Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. During his time there, he helped increase the number of high school students taking courses on campus and engineered seamless transfer programs for students to area universities. He served as the college’s president until 2015.
He avidly remember a mother who wanted to apply to Cincinnati State so she could learn a trade to help support her family but did not have enough education to be able to fill out an application form.
In 1961, after briefly serving as medical director and interim health commissioner of the Cincinnati Health Department, Owens became president and CEO of Interact for Health, an organization focused on improving the health in the region.
Owens currently is a member of the board of directors for Cincinnati Preschool Promise and the Cincinnati Firefighter Association. He has held several other board memberships, including with U.S. Bank, Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, Red Cross and the Fine Arts Fund (now ArtsWave) Board. He is the former president and CEO of RISE Learning Solutions Inc., a national nonprofit organization that used technology to bring world-class training to adults who care for pre-school aged children.
During Cincinnati’s bicentennial year, the Bicentennial Commission honored Owens as one of the Bicentennial’s 200 Greater Cincinnatians in recognition of his community service. Black Enterprise Magazine named him one of the top 15 Black doctors in America.
Owens has been named an Honorary Kentucky Colonel and an Ohio Commodore. He also was honored with the Jewish National Fund Tree of Life Award the Northern Kentucky University, three Honorary Ph.D.s, and was the youngest person inducted into the Ohio Independent College Hall of Excellence.
In January, Owens was selected as one of the nonprofit executive directors of the year and received the Medical Mutual Pillar Award for Community Service. He was honored for his long-time efforts to improve health in Greater Cincinnati, most recently at Interact for Health.
Owens lives in Amberley Village with his wife, Marchelle, a teacher he met on what he said was the only blind date of his life. He sold a microscope to buy her an engagement ring. They have been married since 1976 and have three grown children – Morgan, Chris and Justin – who live in Cincinnati.
As a final word of life advice, Owens asks people to heal their personal relationships on a daily basis. “As coroner, I have seen people cry at funerals because they did not tell their loved one they loved them one more time. As my father said, ‘Tomorrow is not promised.’”
Owens says he would like his epitaph to read, “He made a difference.”
As for retirement, Owens says he looks forward doing a lot of fishing.
The Interact for Health Board plans a celebration in honor of Dr. Owens’ many contributions to the community. The public will be invited, and details will be announced when large gatherings are allowed.