PSARA Oral Histories Project:
Gary Owens Interview
PSARA Advocate Archives
September 2019 Page 5
Members Matter: PSARA’s Oral History Project
An Interview with Garry Owens
By Karen Richter and Angie Bartels
PSARA’s Oral History project is underway. Our second interviewee was Garry Owens, PSARA member and longtime activist. His interview lasted about an hour and a half and is excerpted here.
Where were you born?
I was born in Seattle on October 31, 1944. My mother’s family was from Ellensburg, and they moved to Seattle during the Depression. Irony about her family -- her grandmother, her mother, as well as she all had their first kid at age 16. They were all young moms, which created closeness between them. My Dad’s family was from Louisiana, and they moved here when he was 19 for work. I never really knew him. The man I knew as my father was Sylvester Owens, who adopted me when I was one, so I have his name. I was an only child until I was 12. So the public library became my best friend. I could access information and books, sometimes 10 to 15 at a time. Words do matter, and it helped me be a critical reader.
Where did you live and go to school?
I was born in the International District and lived there until we had to move to Stadium Homes in Southeast Seattle, then to Rainier Vista, and I went to school there. My Mom taught me to read before I started school so I would have a head start. We moved to Beacon Hill when I was 12 and I got a new brother. Two years later, a sister. I finished high school and got drafted as soon as I graduated. This was the Vietnam era, and I didn’t want to go. I went to the Coast Guard Center and was inducted into service and was told I was being taken to Fort Ord, so when all the new privates turned left to be shipped out, I went right and went home. I ran into my Mom and told her everything went OK. Then a knock on the door and the military police came looking for Private Garry Wade Owens. I was handcuffed and sent to Fort Lawton. My sense of rebellion was alive and kicking. I got into a fight with a bunkmate who dumped cigarette ashes in my coffee. Monday morning I hitchhiked back to my godmother’s house in Seattle who turned me in. I was sent to Fort Lewis for a week then to Fort Ord. I was given a choice -- spend two years in service and be done with it or spend two years in military prison then do two more in active service. I did the two years in military service. I was sent to Fort Bragg and became a radio operator. During this time my Mom died. She was 37. After a month of bereavement leave, there was not enough time [in my required service] to deploy me to Nam so I always say my Mom saved my life.
How did you become an activist?
I went to school at Franklin High with Larry Gossett. He asked me to go to the University of Washington. I wasn’t sure. But one day while I was at the Coffee Corral, an English professor read some of my journal. Turned out he was an assistant dean at UW. He gave me his card and asked me to see him. I did, and he sent me to the enrollment office with some paperwork. The person there asked me if I wanted to be a fully matriculated student. I did, and then I was. While I was at UW I helped form the Black Student Union and helped start the Black Panthers with Larry. Crucial issues for us were health, children and poverty, and food. So many kids were going to school hungry. What could we do about it? We started a free breakfast program for kids, and we opened up several community clinics. We were the first Black Panther Party outside California. It wasn’t just about defiance with the police but about people’s needs, empty stomachs, health needs, and shaming larger institutions that caused these conditions.
What contributions did the Black Panthers give us?
Our clinics and free breakfast programs were some. We were not afraid to resist! That word is big even now. We had compassion for our community, and we still need to work on that, and we still need to talk more about human rights. We are not eachothers' enemies, not combatants. The system pits us against each other and makes money from it. We should be using our resources to make sure no one is left behind.
How did you meet your wife, Cindy Domingo?
I met Cindy at CAMP, the Central Area Motivation Program, headed by Larry Gossett. We both worked there. Cindy worked in the Minor Home Repair Program, and I was the Treasurer. We dated about four years, then we got married and had two kids. The rest is history. I’ve known her for 31 years.
What keeps you involved and active at this point in your life?
I believe we are all put here for a special reason. I know what I do well and what I don’t. I don’t want accolades. My grandmother had an apartment building filled with tenants, some who were alone. On holidays she would leave our table and go feed them. She wanted them to know that they were family too, not just tenants. She had a big heart and was kind to others. She knew who needed help. If she could do that I, could too. To be charitable you don’t have to ask permission. You just do it.
How did you get involved with PSARA?
That’s easy. I went to school with Robby Stern at UW. He was out there pushing it with the Students for a Democratic Society when I was with the Black Panthers. When he was President of PSARA he kept asking me to join the Board. For four years he kept asking me, and I couldn’t commit during those times. I retired after 25 years with the City of Seattle. I was on my way to a funeral when he asked me again, and I finally said yes. Glad I did. PSARA people have passion and a lot of good energy flow. It makes me feel good to go to meetings because it reminds me that age doesn’t matter. It’s not about how old we are, it’s that we care about ourselves. We don’t want to be dissed because we are older. If we don’t stand up, we get placed in a category – that we are obsolete and don’t matter. Age does matter. We are seniors, and we are here and know our contributions to society.
Thank you, Garry. You inspire us, and we are very glad you belong to PSARA and serve on our Executive Board.
Karen Richter is PSARA's Membership Co-VP. Angie Bartels and Garry Owens are PSARA members.