Photo by: Blake Sheely (WCPO)

By: Felicia Jordan

CINCINNATI — Central Parkway at Ezzard Charles Drive will now bear a secondary name to honor a longtime Cincinnati health leader who passed away in November 2022.

A street sign emblazoned with “Dr. O’dell Owens Way” was unveiled at the intersection Thursday morning by Cincinnati city leaders.

Dr. O’dell Moreno Owens died on Nov. 23, 2022 at the age of 73.

Owens is best known for helping to establish the University of Cincinnati Medical Center’s in-vitro fertilization program, achieving the first “successful conception and delivery as well as the first pregnancy from the frozen embryo.”

However, his impact on the city in which Owens was born continued beyond that first impressive achievement.

The Cincinnati native grew up in the West End and graduated from Woodward High School before leaving the Queen City behind for Yale Medical School, where he earned both a MD and Master of Public Health. He then went on to complete a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology at Harvard Medical School.

He returned to Cincinnati in the 1980s, when he joined UCMC.

Then, in 2004, he became the first Black person to serve in an executive office in Hamilton County’s history when he was elected to the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office. He served a second term after he was re-elected in 2008.

Owens then became the president of Cincinnati State in 2010, where he served until he was hired as the medical director of the Cincinnati Health Department in 2015.

Owens then joined the health equity nonprofit Interact for Health, where he spent five years as president and CEO. When he announced his retirement from the organization in February 2021, Owens said he knew that job would be the last one he’d hold.

“Leading Interact provides a unique opportunity to influence health care in the Greater Cincinnati community by investing in grants, research and policy, and leading a dedicated and talented staff,” Owens wrote in a news release announcing his retirement. “Whether helping a child get glasses and see the board in school for the first time, passing a model Tobacco 21 policy to deter youth from smoking or vaping or helping reduce opioid overdoses, I retire knowing that, together, we’ve made a lasting impact on our community’s health.”

But Owens wasn’t done there.

Despite his retirement, Owens took up the mantle of advocating for COVID-19 vaccinations within the Black community, as data showed low vaccination rates among minority populations during the pandemic.

In February 2022, those efforts earned him a badge from Hamilton County Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey, who said a video made by Owens pleading with inmates to receive the COVID-19 vaccine likely saved lives and resulted in improved working conditions for employees.

“You are still a human being no matter where you are,” Owens said in the video. “As a human being, you need to care about yourself and about others. So, get the vaccination. When you come back and come home, don’t let not having a vaccination keep you from getting a job or visiting the people that you love and haven’t seen in a while. Stay healthy. Get the vaccination. Be safe.”

Days later, the jail’s weekly vaccination totals rose from 9 to 34 to 55 in three weeks and continued to increase from there.

Owens was also very involved in volunteering with the Salvation Army, especially the Red Kettle campaign. He had his own portion of the campaign for 15 years called O’Dell’s Bells.

When Owens died less than one year later, community members, city officials and health advocates throughout the city mourned.

“Dr. Owens took care of our community from cradle to grave,” read a statement issued by Interact for Health after Owens’ death. “He was a trailblazer, a leader, a friend and a mentor to many. During his four and a half years at Interact for Health, Dr. Owens worked to improve access to health care via school-based health centers, reduce tobacco use, address the opioid epidemic and improve health equity in the region. His contributions to the foundation were part of a long career to improve health in Greater Cincinnati. He will be deeply missed, and his legacy will continue to inspire work for years to come.”

Reposted with permission from WCPO 9 Cincinnati.

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