Retired professor fought for students and civil rights

Claude Owen appeared at Geo-Venture 2006, a gem and mineral show hosted by the Niagara Peninsula Geological Society.

Claude Owen appeared at Geo-Venture 2006, a gem and mineral show hosted by the Niagara Peninsula Geological Society.

He was a civil rights protester. He was a hobby geologist who travelled the province collecting mineral samples. He had a keen sense of right and wrong, and was a tireless supporter of the underdog.

But this week, Claude Owen is remembered at Brock as someone who was integral to the founding of one of the University’s language programs.

The retired professor died at Shaver Hospital on Feb. 25 at the age of 82.

He was a professor of German from 1967 to 1991 in the former Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies, which eventually became part of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

Owen was born in Frankfurt, Germany, where he and his Jewish family lived until 1938 when the Nazi regime forced them to flee to South America, said Al Ciceran, Owen’s colleague and friend since the two met at Brock in 1967.

Owen did his post-secondary studies in America, where he had his first teaching positions. He became an avid civil rights protester, attending demonstrations to fight the segregation of blacks and whites, said Ciceran, the former head of the Language Learning Centre who retired in 2002.

Owen’s area of specialization was Heinrich Heine, and he published a seminal work on Heine’s reception in Hispanic communities, Heine im spanishchen Sprachgebiet, in 1969, said Barry Joe, a scholar in Germanic Studies and director of Brock’s Centre for Teaching, Learning and Educational Technologies. He was personally acquainted with many modern German-language authors, and often arranged for student exchange trips to Germany where they were invited to meet and interview the authors.

Owen and professor emeritus Herb Schutz also authored Deutsch fur Kanadier, which was “a well respected and accepted textbook for beginners of Germany that became the standard for many years,” said Julia Frankel, a long-time friend and professor of Russian who retired from Brock in 2001.

“He was a good friend, a reliable friend and a good colleague who was always trying to further the department,” Frankel said.

“He was a Mensch – soft-hearted, exacting, and he could also be very hard if he felt people were abusing their position or power. He could be withdrawn if he felt injustice was being exercised. Then he would come back with fight.”

Diane Bielicki, who now teaches German at Brock, recalls Owen writing a letter of introduction for her to Ilse Aichinger, an Austrian writer Bielicki subsequently visited and interviewed. For a young student searching for an academic focus, this was a pivotal experience, she said.

But the professor’s engagement with students extended beyond academic matters. In the early 1970s, Bielicki recalls, a group of German students set up a mock display in the library, replete with ironic references to famous writers, composers and artists. Owen contributed some items of his own, including a “fragment” of a “lost” symphony by Beethoven, which contained a musical joke.

“He was well known for his quick, wry and quirky sense of humour,” she said.

Later in life, Owen became an amateur geologist. He took Earth Sciences courses at Brock and travelled Ontario in a house trailer – mostly the northern areas – collecting mineral specimens that he traded with fellow micromineralogists around the world. He was an honourary life member of the Niagara Peninsula Geological Society.

Posted on February 28, 2011

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