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Former Rep. Major Owens dies at 77

Noted for his education advocacy

OW Staff Writer | 10/24/2013, midnight

Major Robert Odell Owens was a New York politician and a prominent member of the Democratic Party who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1983 to 2007, representing the state’s 11th Congressional district. Owens died Oct. 21, in New York City of renal and heart failure. He was 77.

Owens, a Tennessee native, received a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College and a Master of Science degree from Atlanta University. He worked as a librarian before entering politics.

During the 1960s, Owens served under Mayor John Lindsay, heading New York City’s Community Development Agency. He was elected to the New York State Senate in 1974.

In 1982, Owens was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, replacing the retiring Shirley Chisholm and representing a diverse district located within Brooklyn, New York. His district included the low income areas of Brownsville, the large Hasidic Jew community of Crown Heights, the heavily Caribbean areas of Flatbush and East Flatbush, and the now upscale neighborhood of Park Slope.

As a member of the House committee that dealt with education, Owens spent much time sponsoring and shaping measures to put more federal money into reducing high school dropout rates, hiring more teachers, and improving library services. Many of his provisions became parts of wider education bills.

In 1985, he wrote parts of a successful bill that authorized a $100 million fund to strengthen historically Black colleges.

Although Owens won the 2004 Democratic primary with just 45.44 percent of the vote, he was re-elected in 2004 general election with 94 percent of the vote. He received an “A” on the Drum Major Institute’s 2005 Congressional Scorecard on middle-class issues, and retired from the House at the end of his term in January 2007.

Owens was married twice, the first time to Ethel Werfel, a White, Jewish woman with whom he had three sons —Brooklyn politician Chris Owens, actor Geoffrey Owens, best known for playing Elvin on “The Cosby Show,” and Milard Owens.

Major Owens is survived by his wife, Maria Owens, his three sons from his first marriage, two step-children from his second marriage, four grandchildren, and four step-grandchildren.