There are times when one is grateful for life’s unexpected rewards and there are times when you wonder in the fairness of it all. The story I am going to tell is about my chance meeting with a man named Owen on the campus of the University of Oklahoma, and what transpired in years ahead.
I was new in the town of Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma, as a transfer student from Arizona State hoping to complete my graduate studies in Electrical Engineering. Spending money was not a major concern to me as I had obtained a teaching assistantship in the School of Engineering. My stipend of $200 a month was sufficient to maintain a comfortable student life. However, finding suitable living accommodation was a major concern.
It was January 1963. The weather was chilly, around 35 0F, something I was not used to in Arizona. I had arrived in Norman by Continental Trailways bus from Phoenix on a Thursday afternoon. Not having any friends or acquaintances in Norman I had reserved a room at the Holiday Inn on North Interstate Drive.
My plan was to meet the Dean of Students early Friday morning to see if he could help me settle. I got up early in the morning to catch the dean in his office before he got busy. After a light breakfast I took a taxi to the main campus, not knowing how far it was from the hotel and whether I could walk in the cold. The Dean’s office was on the first floor in the Administrative Building. The office had a small room that led to a larger room. The dean’s secretary occupied the small room. Her desk was placed perpendicular and adjacent to the inside door. As I walked in I noticed that the name plate on her desk said “Anita Sterling”. Ms. Sterling, well groomed in an ankle length blue dress and nicely coiffured, appeared at ease at handling whatever came her way during the day.
“Good morning. What can I do for you Mr….?” She asked cheerfully.
“Ashley. Ashley Wilkins. I am a new transfer student. I was wondering if the dean is in and if I could just have a couple of minutes with him in regards to a personal matter. I am sorry I did not schedule an appointment with him.” I replied.
“O, no problem. But unfortunately the dean is out of town and will be back Monday. He will certainly meet with you then. Why don’t I put your name on his calendar? Ashley Wilkins, did you say? Would 9.30AM be O. K.? He usually has a staff meeting at 8 on Monday mornings that runs for an hour or so.”
“Fine! Fine! I will see him at 9.30 Monday morning.” I said. There really was no other choice. Anita was made a note in a book as I left.
I had no idea what I was going to do next. The thought of spending the whole weekend alone in the hotel without a car or a friend was depressing.
I crossed the campus and came upon a busy street. There was a neon sign in red flashing the word “Rickners” on the other side of the street. It looked like a diner. It turned out to be a bookstore with a coffee shop in it. I figured I would have a sandwich and coffee or some light snack. When the light turned green, I crossed the street, my nose and ears turning numb from the cold.
The store was not crowded. A couple was looking through the shelves in the book store. I walked up to the counter and started to read the menu. I was in no rush and was taking my time to decide what to select from the menu. A young waitress dressed in white cleaned the counter for lack of anything else to do.
“Well, well. Isn’t someone waiting patiently for a cup of coffee?” I heard a voice behind me. For a moment I thought I was obstructing someone wanting to proceed along the line. But there was no line. I turned and noticed a young man wearing blue wranglers, a heavy winter jacket and a maroon baseball cap with the letters OU on the front. He was the same height as me, about 5 feet 5 inches.
“Hi, I am Owen. New here?” the man asked, extending his right hand. The way he said his name in his Oklahoma drawl sounded like “Oh Wayne”. I shook his hand as I wondered how he knew I was new in town. Perhaps I looked lost.
“Ashley.” I said. “Ashley Wilkins.”
“Not Ashley Wilkes, the proper gentleman from Gone with the Wind?” Owen said with a wide grin.
“Not even close,” I said. “I am new in town. I arrived from Phoenix yesterday.”
I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with coffee and Owen ordered just coffee. We found an empty table and continued our conversation.
Owen was a junior biology major. He was born and raised in Pauls River, just south of Norman. His parents wanted him to attend a local university. They could not afford to send him out of state. I mentioned to Owen that I was looking for a place to stay, somewhere off campus.
“Hey, I have an idea.” Owen said. “My roommate Cody is joining school a week late. He has to attend to some business back home. You can stay with me for a week. I’m sure something will come up by then.”
I was surprised by Owen’s willingness to share his room with a stranger. Was he not afraid of any bad consequences? What if I was a runaway bank robber hiding from the police in Arizona?
We drove to the Holiday Inn to pick up my belongings. Owen owned a grey four-door Renault Dauphine, a French compact car with stick shift.
Owen’s room was standard university stock: two beds along the walls facing each other, tables with portable lamps and small bookcases for each student. An OU banner and a calendar showing sports events hung on Owen’s side of the wall. He even had an OU coffee mug on his desk. He must really like this school, I thought.
Later that afternoon Owen took me for a ride around town. The campus was surrounded by residential housing. The fraternities and sororities were all grouped together behind the main campus. The Boomer Theater just across the main campus had From Russia with Love on the marquee and a very large paper poster “007 is Back” on the entrance door. The grocery store was away from the campus. Owen said that most students who stayed off campus and did their own cooking grouped together and shared a taxi to buy groceries on weekends. JC Penney was the major clothing store that students frequented.
It was a nice tour of the town, though I must confess that I was getting tired. The long bus ride from Phoenix was taking its toll. I needed to rest. I asked Owen to take me back to his room.
Owen left me at the rooming house and said he would be out running an errand. I went to his room and took a nap. When I woke up it had become dark outside. Owen had not returned. I turned on the radio, which was set to a country music station. I was not much of a fan of that kind of music but I did not want to do anything to disturb the host. A while later the weatherman came on the radio and reported that there was a chance of snow flurries at night but the next day was supposed to be sunny. After an hour or so Owen showed up. He said the Pizza Hut on Lindsay was running a special: $1.19 for all-you-can-eat pizza with iced tea. Since I had not eaten anything except the grilled cheese sandwich earlier, that sounded like a good offer.
While we were having dinner at Pizza Hut Owen mentioned that he had planned to visit his folks in Pauls Valley the next day, to attend his younger sister’s birthday. He asked me to accompany him. You will see some countryside, he said.
As we were returning to the rooming house Owen had to turn on the wipers on his car. A few flurries had started to descend from the sky. The weatherman was right. On the way back we stopped at the Dairy Queen and picked up hot chocolate to take to our room.
Owen did not have a TV, so instead we talked on a number of topics: Family, friends, religion, the politics of the Vietnam War, and reducing the drinking age for students. “If one can go to war at 18 years of age, why can’t the person be allowed to drink beer?” was the talk of the student body. Owen was against America’s involvement in the war. I was not a strong debater and did not have an opinion one way or another.
While we talked, Owen sat on his bed strumming his guitar to the tunes of the then-popular songs “Where are all the Flowers gone?” and “Puff the Magic Dragon”.
By 1 AM we called it a night and went to sleep.
I had no idea what time it was when my eyes opened the next morning. I noticed that Owen had already been up much earlier and had just returned from his morning run.
I remembered that Owen was going to take me to his home in Pauls Valley. When both of us were ready we took off in the Renault. The sky had cleared up and it was sunny. Owen wore his baseball cap.
We stopped by the McDonald’s on Jenkins Street for lunch. It had a sign heralding that they were the “House of the 15-cent hamburgers”.
The ride to Pauls Valley was pleasant. It took us about forty-five minutes. Owen was listening to a church program. My mind, however, was filled with thoughts of my upcoming meeting with the dean. I was not sure how much help I was going to get from him. When we reached Pauls Valley, Owen drove by his high school. He mentioned how as a senior he had coached a youth basketball team.
Owen’s parents owned a small ranch-style home with a red brick façade and a white picket fence. The front lawn had a few rose bushes to the right of the house. There was a barren spot to the left that appeared to have been reserved for a vegetable garden to be grown in summer. The living room had a brown plaid sofa and a matching loveseat that was normally advertised by Sears.
The whole family was very friendly. Only close family members and Owen’s sister’s friends were invited to the birthday party. I watched the festivities from a corner. Perhaps Owen had told his mother that I would be accompanying him. The meal she had prepared was special. It was obvious that she wanted to be a good host to her son’s friend. I especially liked the pot roast and the homemade apple pie topped with French vanilla ice cream. During dinner Owen’s parents enquired about my family. My response was short. It was not a sign of disrespect, but my natural inclination was not to elaborate more than necessary. At one point Owen’s mother remarked: “You are a nice boy, but not much of a talker are you?”
The next morning the family went to attend the Sunday church service. I excused myself and spent the time reading magazines and brochures published by the Pauls Valley Chamber of Commerce.
We left for Norman in the late afternoon on Sunday. I remember Owen’s father walking up to the door and saying, “Drive carefully. God bless.”
In the evening Owen took me over to the Student’s Union where there was a large television. The Union was a favorite gathering place for students on Sundays. Watching music programs such as the Hootenanny or Shanana in the company of other students capped one week and prepared the students to face another grueling one. It was also a place to make new friendships.
This is where I met Dushyant, an international student from India. Dushyant said that he was renting a room in a two story private house owned by a Mrs. English on Asp Avenue, a couple of blocks off the main campus. It was also very close to the engineering building. Dushyant said that Mrs. English occupied the first floor and rented out rooms on the second floor, and she happened to have a vacancy.
It turned out to be a great arrangement. Mrs. English allowed the renters to use her kitchen. That suited me fine. I could use it to cook something when I got bored eating out.
I called the dean’s office first thing Monday morning and cancelled my appointment. My problem of finding a place to stay had been solved.
I did not see Owen very much after I settled in my rented room in Mrs. English’s house. We occasionally met in the Student’s Union on Sundays. A few times he helped me bring groceries. Once or twice he had said that his mother had enquired about me and wanted to know, “How is the quiet one”?
Owen graduated with a degree in Biological Sciences in 1965. He would occasionally write letters to keep me informed about his whereabouts. One such letter was from Malawi, South Africa. He had just finished a two-year draft duty in Vietnam and was involved in organizing youth activities and teaching young children. He did not say whether he was there on a Peace Corps assignment or on a church mission. He said he was “just friends” with a young lady, Rachel, from Idaho and had enclosed a picture of both of them with a group of children.
Right after Owen left Norman I got very busy with my graduate studies and thesis. I graduated with a doctorate in Engineering in 1968 and secured a position as an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University. It’s the only place I have ever worked. Life has been good over the years. In time I got married to Samantha, had three wonderful children and have risen to the position of full professor.
I remember a letter I had received from Owen upon learning of my marriage to Samantha. It was October 1971. He had wished me good luck in undertaking life’s new journey. I could not figure out where he was because there was no return address or postmark on the envelope. I lost touch with him after that.
I have gotten used to the cold weather in Michigan. However, we try to escape to a warmer location during spring break. So it was in the month of April 2009 that we arranged a trip to Cancun. As luck would have it we had to cancel our plans due to an outbreak of the Swine Flu. Instead, we went to The Grand Palladium All Inclusive Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
We spent four wonderful days at the resort. On the day of departure, the transport shuttle brought us back to the airport much in advance of our flight. The only thing we could do was to while away our time by window shopping for souvenirs to bring back home.
We were in front of a jewelry store when we saw a couple pass us. The man was of medium build and was wearing brown shorts and a floral shirt that was not tucked in. He appeared to be in his late fifties or early sixties and was wearing a light maroon baseball cap with the logo “OU” on the front. As they walked past us I said to Samantha that perhaps he is from my alma mater.
“Why don’t you find out?” Samantha said.
I am not an outgoing person who starts conversations with strangers, but when the couple walked a few steps beyond us and turned back, I made my move.
“Are you folks from Oklahoma?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, of course,” the man replied, “Norman, Oklahoma. But now I live in Miami, Florida. I am a practicing pediatrician there. I am Duane.”
“Hi, I’m Ash.” I said.
We introduced our wives. He told us that he was in Montego Bay with his wife Agnes to attend a medical conference.
I felt comfortable by the positive response. I told him that I too was an alumnus of the University and had lived on Asp Avenue at one time. I asked him if he remembered the Rickner’s book-store right off the main campus. He said he did.
“How about the McDonald’s that sold 15 centhamburgers?”
“Yes! On Jenkins,” he said.
He complimented me on my good memory. I started to feel some familiarity with him but did not know why. I also noticed that Duane was staring at me as if he was trying to recollect something but was lost in his thoughts.
It was Samantha who asked him what year he graduated. It turned out he was several years junior to me.
“Maybe we were in some classes together,” he said.
We made some small talk on the effect of the Internet and how it has changed patient’s behavior with doctors. We could have continued talking, but we heard some announcement on the airport speaker system.
“Oh, my gosh! They just announced our gate. It was nice talking with you folks,” Duane said.
“Go Sooners!” said Agnes with thumbs up as they turned away from us. She had been quiet all along but was intently listening to our conversation.
“God bless!” he said as they departed.
When I heard those words it dawned on me that the man I just met was Owen. The Owen I knew who pronounced his name “Oh Wayne.” Maybe he said “Oh Wayne” when he introduced himself, but I heard it as “Duane.” I should have introduced myself as “Ashley” instead of “Ash”. That would have jogged his memory. Was he really Owen?
There was only one way to find out: catch up with him and ask.
“Owen, Owen,” I shouted as I dashed toward him and his wife. Samantha followed me. I reached him as they were in front of their gate. Instead of lining up to board I noticed that they were standing idly looking at the monitor with the flight listings.
“Owen, are you the Owen who lived on Lindsay Street and owned a Renault?” I asked, almost out of breath.
He looked surprised as he admitted that he in fact was the same Owen. When I re-introduced myself as Ashley Wilkins his face beamed with sudden happiness.
“Ashley? The quiet one?” he asked as he came forward and hugged me. I apologized for not recognizing him and thinking his name was Duane.
“Well, we have changed, haven’t we?” Owen said. “I thought you looked familiar.”
“I would have ignored you if you were not wearing your cap,” I said.
It turned out that the announcement he heard was for another flight and they had another half an hour, as did we. We decided to sit in a coffee shop to catch up.
Owen said that after he finished his work in Africa he returned to the United States and settled in Miami. He did not mention what happened to Rachel. In Miami he enrolled in medical school and later became a pediatrician. He had one daughter, Sally, a teacher in Melbourne. Both of his parents had passed away. I told him about the life of a faculty member at Michigan State, my three children – two of them professionals and one still in college – the campus politics, the pressure to publish and the struggle to get tenure.
We had a good chat. At the end we exchanged our addresses and telephone numbers. I invited Owen and Agnes to spend Thanksgiving with us.
“It’s a date,” Owen said as we departed.
I was really looking forward to Owen and Agnes’s visit. We were planning a good feast. I remembered the special dinner Owen’s mother had made when I had visited his parents’ home in Pauls Valley. This was my chance to reciprocate.
A week before Thanksgiving I received a call from Samantha in my office at the university. There is a package for you from Florida, she said.
I could not contain my curiosity. What had Owen sent? Perhaps it was a gift. I did not have any classes or meetings that afternoon, so I came home early.
It was a small padded envelope with something soft inside. I opened it. There, neatly wrapped in a plastic container was an OU baseball cap, along with a handwritten note. Dear Professor Wilkins, it said at the top left hand corner and then had the following message:
I know how much you were looking forward to Owen’s visit to your home this Thanksgiving. I am sorry to inform you that Owen died two weeks ago in a car accident very close to our home. He left the house early in the morning for his daily run. Our neighbor was walking his dog and the dog somehow broke away from his leash to chase a squirrel. Owen ran after the dog to catch him and bring him back to his owner. He did not see a car turning the corner and coming toward him. He was hit and was seriously injured. My neighbor called an ambulance from his cell phone and rushed Owen to the hospital. After two days in coma Owen passed away. He died as a result of an act of kindness and helping others in need, as was his nature.
I remember how you had said that if it was not for Owen wearing the OU baseball cap you two would not have come together. I want you to have the cap as a memory of your friendship.
When I finished reading I broke down and started to cry. Samantha was puzzled. She approached me asking- what happened? what happened? I was too overwhelmed to speak. I handed her the letter and wiped my tears.
Later that night after I regained my composure, I called Agnes. I offered my condolences and asked if I could be of help. She said she did not need anything at that moment. After settling some affairs related to Owen’s business she was planning to move to Melbourne to live close to Sally.
A week later I took the cap to an embroidery shop and had them place the letters Owen above the letters OU. I keep the cap in a prominent place in my study.