By Dan Yount
The Cincinnati Herald
A section of Central Parkway at Ezzard Charles Drive in the West End neighborhood on Sept. 14 received the honorary, secondary street name of “Dr. O’dell Owens Way”—honoring Dr. O’dell Moreno Owens for his contributions to the City of Cincinnati and his dedication to the community through medicine and public service.
Dr. Owens was born and raised in Cincinnati’s West End and graduated from Woodward High School. He eventually attended and graduated from Yale Medical School and became the first African American fellow in reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Harvard Medical School. He returned to Cincinnati to establish the fertilization program at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center with the first successful in vitro conception and delivery in our city. In 2004, he was elected Hamilton County Coroner, and while in that position, gave hundreds of talks to local students about making the right choices in life. He then became president of Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, followed by taking the position as Interim Cincinnati Health Commissioner. He then joined Interact for Health, where he spent five years as president and CEO. When he announced his retirement from the organization in February 2021, Dr. Owens said he knew that job would be the last one that he would hold.
Dr. Owens passed suddenly in November 2022, one day before Thanksgiving.
The idea for the street renaming came from Mayor Aftab Pureval and Councilman Scotty Johnson, said Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney who organized the event. She asked Dr. Owens’ son, Chris for location suggestions and he chose Central Parkway. “Chris said his dad was a ‘bridge builder.’ He connected people of all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and neighborhoods,” Kearney explained. Central Parkway also passes through the West End where Dr. Owens’ life began.
In December, Hamilton County Commissioners, led by Commissioner President Alicia Reece, approved naming the new coroner’s facility in Blue Ash after Owens. Reece was one of the featured speakers at the ceremony.
Dr. Owens’ daughter, Morgan Angelique Owens, says losing him was hard on the family. “My father gave his whole life to his job, his community, his children, my mom,” said Morgan Owens. “He gave his everything to everyone. He rarely took care of himself, but we’re going to take care of you now, Dad.
“He would have been in tears,” she said. “Just thinking of how my Dad grew up, all the obstacles he had to get over. I mean, wow, you got a whole street, Dad.”
Jeanette Altenau, Community Relations Director with Tri-Heath says there’s no better way to remember him. “In every speech he gave, he asked what each of us could do — just one thing we could do — to make our community better. He lived his life that way and he hoped we would do the same thing,” Altenau said. “Now, I hope as we pass this street that we’ve been gifted so beautifully by our city leadership, all of us will think about something that we can do to help make this community a better place for all of us to live, to learn, to work, and to experience life in a way that O’dell taught us.”
“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,” Dr. 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.”
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,” Dr. 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 awhile. 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.
He was also a longtime chairman and volunteer for WCET-TV’s Action Auction, and was honored in 2021 with a mural on the Central Parkway side of the Crosley Telecommunications Center at Ezzard Charles Drive and Central Parkway.
Hamilton County Commission President Alicia Reece said, “The absence of Dr. Owens has left a hole in our hearts that is not replacable.”
Kenneth Parker, U.S. Attorney, Sixth District, said Dr. Owens “knew love, and he poured his love into the education of our youth. He would wipe away their tears and show them the right way, and he honored all of us in doing that.”
When Dr. Owens died, Interact for Health issued this statement:
Dr. O’dell Owens took care of our community from cradle to grave. 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.”
The ceremony ended with Robert Lomax singing “Leon on Me” as the crowd joined in.