By Sesh Online Report
The City of Cincinnati remains devastated as people continue to accept the sudden death of Dr. O’dell Moreno Owens, M.D., MPH. Owens will be memorialized in a private funeral service for the family on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022 at Corinthian Baptist Church, 1920 Tennessee Avenue. A Public Wake will be held from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Rev. K.Z. Smith is officiating.
Dr. Owens’ death on Nov. 23 caught everyone by surprise. “My Dad was everything. My family and I are at a loss. My father gave so much to this world, his life-long mission was to make a difference. He certainly did. He touched so many lives. Dad your legacy will live on. Please keep our family in your thoughts and prayers,” said Morgan Owens.
Owens is survived by 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.
For over 38 years, Dr. O’dell Owens through his life-long love of science and a desire to help people, served the City of Cincinnati as a leader, groundbreaking physician, educator, and valued community leader and sought-after speaker. His personal motto is “help people help themselves,” something he’s lived throughout the course of his professional life. He retired in March 2021 from public service.
Mayor Aftab Pureval upon hearing of Dr. Owens’ death released a statement saying, “Dr. Owens left an immeasurable impact on our city, through his lifetime of public service and his years dedicated to the health and education of our residents. Our heartfelt condolences to his family and those whose lives he touched. His legacy will never leave us.”
“Like all of Cincinnati, I have so much love and respect for Dr. O’dell Owens,” said Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney. “He was all about promoting life and helping each individual to live life to the fullest. He helped couples to realize their dream of bearing children, and then, as the Hamilton County Coroner, he toured our schools, teaching children the value of life and how important it is to make good choices. As president of Cincinnati State, he made a college education and lucrative career attainable for everyone, especially those who thought they could never achieve those goals. At Interact for Health, he worked to close the health disparity gap. He was passionate and outspoken in the fight for justice and civil rights. Most of all, Dr. Owens was a model family man who fiercely loved his family and friends with all of his heart and soul.”
During an interview with Cincinnati Herald last year, Owens offered a final word of life advice. He 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 added, he would like his epitaph to read, “He made a difference.”
In his honor, Cincinnati City Manager Sheryl M.M. Long has ordered all flags be lowered to half-staff in honor of the passing of Dr. Owens. “Dr. Owens was a dedicated public servant who previously served as Interim Health Commissioner for the Cincinnati Health Department. The city is grateful for Dr. Owens’ invaluable contributions to the health of our citizens and we offer our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” said Long in a released statement.
A native Cincinnatian, Owens graduated from Woodward High School and later from 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 spent his lifegiving life, creating pathways, and creating potential,” said Rev. Ennis Tait, pastor of New Beginnings Church of the Living God in Avondale. “When he talked to children, he opened their eyes to what can be. Even if they were told what couldn’t be. He showed them that your dreams of what could be, can be a reality.”
Owens attended Yale University School of Medicine graduating in 1976 with an M.D. and a master’s degree in 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.
When Dr. Owens returned to Cincinnati to work at the University Hospital Medical Center 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.
“I was the first African American and only 12th person to do a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology at Harvard,” Owens said. “I came to Cincinnati as the first reproductive endocrinologist; there was no other specialist in the city at that time.”
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.
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.
Chief Administrator Andrea S. Hatten with the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office released this statement: “We are truly saddened to hear of the sudden passing of Dr. O’dell Owens. During his more than 5 years as coroner he continued his life’s mission of positively impacting the lives of young people by encouraging them to stay in school, seek higher education and make good social choices. His legacy within the Cincinnati community is without question, and his impact will continue.”
Hatten added a personal note, “He had been my professor in medical school and was someone I called for advice and guidance before accepting this position as coroner. He encouraged me to take the role and bring the office into the 21st century. He was planning on visiting the new crime lab next week for a tour and to learn about how we perform virtual autopsy which we had discussed 10 years ago. I considered him a friend and mentor and he will be greatly missed.”
Throughout his career, his concern for children overcoming life obstacles was a driving force in everything he did. He voiced his concern 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,” Owens had 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-esteem, even living on the streets, to name several.”
In a recent year, more than 25 percent of the students at one high school were homeless, he said.
He said he saw kids in school eating as if it were 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.
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.
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 was 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 was 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 had 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.