Tom Owen Has Deep Reverence for Louisville History
It would not be hyperbole to say that most of Kentuckiana either knows of or has had direct contact or experiences with longtime resident and local historian Tom Owen. Known to tool around town either on foot or on a bike, Mr. Owen has been a fixture in Louisville for 70 years, give or take.
Having been raised in Louisville, a young Tom began his adult life studying divinity at Kentucky Wesleyan University and then Boston Theology in the 1960s. His studies took him to churches in McLean and Daviess Counties in Kentucky as well as in Louisville where he served as pastor for Summit Heights Methodist Church for three years. He also served as a pastor for a Fire District as well, to where he would often be seen riding his bike to his post.
After completing seminary at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and now married to Phyllis with a family, Tom Owen was becoming and needing to be centered. He began school at the University of Louisville and earned a Masters in History with a dual focus in Library Services. Apparently, that course of action paid off as he began working at U of L in 1968. Soon after Tom attained his Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky and became a full professor of American History in the early 1970s. Aside from his teaching of American History he was also an Instructor for Black Studies at U of L which began in the 1970s, the first coursework of its kind at the University at that time.
Not being one to be sedentary, Tom Owen decided to run for office. In 1990 he threw his hat into the ring to serve on the Board of Alderman. The gamble paid off. He served as an Alderman until 1998. Then again from 2002 to 2016.
Now if you think that after 25 years of service would allow for Mr. Owen to take a break. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If nothing else, he is even busier than before.
Although he is not in public office, he still serves as an advisor to anyone who asks. And while he doesn’t teach classes as he used to, he can still be seen in the U of L archives, looking and researching documents and artifacts that date as far back as the 13th Century.
When asked about some of the information that can be found at the U of L Archives, which was established in 1974. Mr. Owen was all too happy to oblige sharing that the Archives contain over 2.5 million photographs as well as countless manuscripts and pieces of memorabilia that record and mark the history of the University. There are also hundreds of rare books and paraphernalia that are kept in a climate-controlled environment. Tom has been the guardian of these pieces of history since 1975. It should also be noted that while Mr. Owen has been an archivist, he oversaw the transfer of City of Louisville paper documents dating back to 1782, Louisville’s beginnings, to microfiche, for ease of research, procurement and documentation.
While Mr. Owen has written forwards and recommendations for a number of books and stories that have graced our local bookstores, there is one that he actually put his name to – The photographic history of the Belknap Campus.
You may ask what does Tom do when he isn’t teaching or elbow deep in yellowing paper? You could very well see him lead a historic tour of a part of Louisville, often via bicycle. Since his youth, Mr. Owen has been an advocate of pedal and foot power. In fact, he and his wife share one car. These tours were even incorporated into his teaching where he would assign to his students that they would have to research and tour a part of the city that they aren’t familiar with and present their discovery as if they had lived there their whole life.
While Tom had been used to 75-80-hour weeks, he admits that he has cut back to 50, allowing for more rest and family time. And it doesn’t take long for new projects to materialize within those hours.
As Tom is renowned for his acumen for history and the story-telling behind it he is often sought out by agencies and companies that look for historical pieces of information. Recently a national news source reached out to Mr. Owen to discuss redlining and similarities between Louisville and Baltimore. He’s also discussed our heat island and the affect it has on the environment.
And believe it or not, Tom has moved to video as he hosts a program on YouTube called Hometown Louisville with Tom Owens. On it he shares all kinds of tidbits and nuggets of information about our Derby City.
Mr. Owen surmised that he attends/facilitates approximately 80 events a year, which include his walking/biking tours, but also work with Leadership Louisville’s Focus Louisville program which grooms local and emerging leaders within the community.
What is it about Louisville that has kept Tom Owen here? He says that it is within this community that he is deeply rooted, simply because of the stories that he was raised on. It is through the stories of his mother, who moved to Kentucky to find work in the Eastern Kentucky Coal Fields, but then making her way to a brighter future in Louisville with her sister. It is through his mother’s drama-filled storytelling that helped to shape Tom’s insatiable curiosity and ability to delve into research and the explanation of such.
The topics of his walks and seminars are varied and interesting to be sure, but one that he wasn’t sure how it was going to be taken is one that he does called “Trace the Watersheds”, part of a larger study titled “Creeks and Streams of Jefferson County: Mirrors of Our Past”. One of the main watersheds that he traces is none other than Louisville’s Beargrass Creek which has three distinct forks: Muddy Fork that begins on Westport Rd, Middle Fork that runs in the St. Matthews area around Oxmoor Mall (a quick fact, it actually runs underneath the old Sears and Roebuck Building) and the South Fork that falls into the Ohio River. The ways in which it has come to merge into the Ohio is interesting and well worth learning about according to Tom.
Staying busy is part of Tom’s M.O. He enjoys the routine and the jam-packed days that his life provides him. He has no plans to cut down on this schedule and slow down further than he already has. When asked if there was any desire for a slower pace, he responded, “There may come a time (to slow down,) but nah.”