At 98 years old, Jim Owens — long remembered as one of the top florists in the city — can now confess this.
"In the beginning, I knew nothing about flowers," Owens says. "I would take flowers home to my wife and ask her what the heck they were."
It is almost like Owens had simply walked into a flower shop one day and bought it — which, of course, is what he had done. It was 1946 and Owens had returned from the service, and was looking for a place to live. He and his wife both felt like they knew Lawrence a bit from their time at Kansas University.
"We knew where Massachusetts Street was anyway," Owens laughs.
So the couple picked a place to live before Owens had a clue how he would make a living. No worry. A few fellows took the young man by the arm and introduced him to an older fellow who owned Ward's Flowers in downtown. Within a week, Owens had $50,000 in debt — in 1946 dollars — and a flower shop.
"The man I bought it from belonged to a group that got together and drank coffee every morning," Owens recalls. "He told the boys that he had just sold his business to some dumb kid, and he would have it back in two months."
Not quite. Owens went on to own the flower shop — later renamed Owens Flower Shop, which is still in operation today under different ownership — for 35 years.
Maybe the "dumb kid" knew something after all. More than three decades of success happens for a variety of reasons, but surely some of it has to with the one item that always was in bloom in his shop: Owens' faith in the future.
"I'm an optimist," Owens says, "and that has served me pretty well in life."
You could often find Owens on the phone at his shop, and many times the caller on the other end wasn't such the optimist.
"Usually, the phone calls started with something like, 'you are a damn fool for doing this or that,'" Owens recalls.
No, the flower business hadn't turned ugly. But Owens found himself in another business where bouquets of roses are not often what's thrown at you. He was in the business of politics.
The common thinking among longtime Lawrence residents is that Jim Owens is the only man during a course of a career who has served as the mayor of Lawrence, the president of the Lawrence Board of Education and the chairman of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
"Everybody else has been too smart to do it," Owens says with a laugh.
Owens said his time in office certainly did offer an education. He was mayor of Lawrence in the mid-1950s, president of the school board in the 1960s, and was chairman of the chamber of commerce a few years after that. His tenure in office, especially while on the school board, was marked by racial tensions in the city.
"It was a pretty hot place to live back then," Owens says.
He recalls having to call up burly friends and police officers to ask them to stand as security at a school board meeting. The topic was whether black girls should be allowed to be part of the high school's cheerleading squad.
Owens says the decision was pretty easy — "what we were doing by excluding them wasn't fair" — but it was a decision that not everybody would want to hear.
"It never boiled over that night," Owens says, "but it came pretty close."
Owens remembers how the community was so divided over racial and social issues at the time that there were areas of town where men instructed their wives not to drive alone. He remembers how businessmen had to be worried about fires at their stores — his awning was set ablaze one evening — and how the newspaper would have more news of shootings than it does today.
These days, Owens is proud to say that he was there to see it all, and, more importantly, to eventually see it end.
"Keeping the peace is probably what I'm most proud of," Owens says of his time in the public arena. "Our missteps were unfortunate, but we ended up on a good path. That's what I'm most proud of: We're a community that's still on a good path."
If there are regrets, Owens the optimist doesn't take any time to mention them. Well, he does mention with some regret that he never tried to expand his public service trifecta. At one time he considered running for the Douglas County Commission, but he never got around to it.
But as someone mentioned this week, there will be a County Commission election next year. It's never too late. Owens gives the answer you would expect from an optimist.
"I suppose you're right," he says.
The odds of Owens throwing his hat back into the realm of public service probably aren't great. But Owens does wish more people would consider doing so themselves.
Owens said he thinks the quality of leadership in the community is just as good today as it was in past years, but he's long thought the quantity of it could stand to improve.
"I suspect it is easier to watch sports and TV," Owens says of why more people don't become involved in community service. "It does take a lot of time."
But Owens says it is time well spent. The quality of public servants in a community goes a long way in making a community "the type you want to live in."
The payoff from community service, though, doesn't just go to the community. Owens says he thinks people would be surprised at how much they would get out of the process too.
"You really get to know the place you are living in," Owens says.
And indeed, there is a difference between living in a place and knowing a place.
Owens — who says he first came to Lawrence to study "good times" at KU — has come to know this place. It is refreshing to hear what he has learned.
"In general, this place is full of good people, and they want to do good things for their families and their city," Owens says.
And thankfully, it is filled with a few people who still drink from the same bottle of optimism that Jim Owens did in one flower-filled week in 1946.
"Optimism is very important," Owens says "It makes you have a better life."
So, as this holiday season progresses, Owens has some advice. Think about giving your community the gift of of service. Think about giving yourself the gift of optimism.
But buy yourself a flower shop at your own risk.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.