Please remember in your prayers Dr. Benjamin Owens, a storied Iron Range physician and University of St. Thomas benefactor who died at age 88 on Tuesday, Jan. 21.
Owens Science Hall, which opened in 1997 on St. Thomas’ south campus in St. Paul, was built in part with a gift from Owens. He asked that it be named to honor his parents, Mary Pesavento and Ben Owens Sr., and in particular his brother, Dr. Frank Owens.
Father Dennis Dease, who was president of the university when Owens Science Hall was built, said that “Ben’s generosity dramatically enriched the opportunities available to our students in science education. I will always be grateful to him for this, and for his friendship.”
Born in 1925 in Chisholm, Owens graduated from Hibbing High School when he was 16 and attended the College of St. Thomas during the 1942-1943 school year. He then joined the Navy and transferred to the University of Minnesota to earn his medical degree. He served as a Navy flight surgeon on a carrier during the Korean War, and later volunteered on the hospital ship U.S.S. Hope in South America.
Ben Owens’ younger brother Frank graduated from St. Thomas in 1952 and also became a doctor. Frank was 27 when he died of Hodgkin’s disease.
“That year at St. Thomas changed my life,” Ben Owens said in a 1997 interview. “I learned a set of values and a work ethic that has guided me. The education was excellent. The faculty were inspirational and exceptional, and deeply cared about the students.
“I am grateful for the encouragement of the St. Thomas faculty that resulted in choosing medicine as my life’s career, and for the education of my brother. The new science and engineering center will provide education and encouragement to future generations of physicians, engineers and scientists.
“My father had to leave school at age 10 and my mother had to quit high school,” he said. “My parents greatly respected education, and my brother and I benefited. They sent us here (to St. Thomas).
“My brother was something special, a humble and religious man with an extraordinary intellect. He died six months before the birth of his son.” That son, Frank Hamel, received an M.B.A. from St. Thomas in 1991.
Owens said at the science building’s 1997 dedication that “I believe this center will ignite students to learn. Perhaps one of you students will discover a cure for cancer.”
Owens was well-known and admired on Minnesota’s Iron Range and throughout the state for his service and his generosity. He returned to Hibbing in 1951 and began a general practice as a family physician at Mesaba Clinic. When he was named “The Titan of Taconite” at the 50th annual Hibbing Winter Frolic in 2002, a Hibbing Daily Tribune article said “it’s estimated that he delivered 4,358 babies, made 341,500 hospital and patient visits, and made 8,850 house calls.” He delivered 358 babies in one year alone.
Michelle Severson, chair of the committee that selected Owens for the “Titan” honor, said Owens is “someone who has dedicated his life to serving others in various forms for many years. He’s such an honorable person. He loves the community he lives in, loves the people, and shows it in his service to the community.”
That same article in the Hibbing newspaper told the story of how Owens once saved the life of a baby back in 1958.
“He went above and beyond anything you would expect from a doctor, even in those days,” the baby’s father said.
“He’s a Hibbing legend,” the mother added. “He’s a very colorful man. We feel we owe him. He’s our little girl’s godfather.”
When St. Thomas presented Owens with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree in 1992, the degree citation observed that “You have never forgotten your roots. Your generosity has touched virtually every sports team, scout troop and worthwhile cause in Hibbing and throughout the Iron Range.
“Your unselfish dedication to three generations of families reflects your commitment both to your chosen profession and your deeply held belief that all people are entitled to the best possible medical care that society can provide,” the citation read.
By 2002, Owens figured he’d actually worked with five generations of families. “That’s what made it so satisfying,” he told the Hibbing newspaper, “knowing generations of people.”
He was enshrined in the Hibbing High School Athletic Hall of Fame for the four decades he voluntarily spent as team doctor for football and hockey.
The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians named him Doctor of the Year in 1982, and in 1993 the Minnesota Medical Association presented him its Distinguished Service Award. Gov. Rudy Perpich also appointed him chair of the Minnesota Health Advisory Council.
Owens’ generosity continued throughout his life. Less than a week before his death, newspapers announced that he had left an endowment fund for the Hibbing Community College Foundation.
Patty Miller, president of the foundation, said that because of the endowment, “We will see that generations of young people benefit from Dr. Owens’ goodness, which will hopefully inspire many to be the special kind of doctor that Dr. Owens is.”
After a career spanning half a century, Owens continued to practice medicine when he retired in the 1990s and became medical director of Hibbing’s Guardian Angels Health and Rehabilitation Center, where he died of complications from intestinal cancer.
He was preceded in death by his parents and brother, and is survived by his sister-in-law Mary Scallen of Minneapolis and nephew Frank Hamel of St. Paul.