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Sunday, January 20, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Champion for the mentally ill pursues mission in retirement

Seattle Times staff reporter

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On her first official day of retirement, Eleanor Owen rocketed from Seattle to Olympia in her silver 1990 Oldsmobile to rail against prices charged by big drug companies. All down Interstate 5, drivers veered out of the way to let her forge past, which is just the way Owen likes things to go.

In the two decades since she and a small group of other parents founded Washington Advocates for the Mentally Ill, or WAMI, Owen, 80, has made it her mission to badger and charm politicians, doctors, social workers, bureaucrats, judges and lawyers.

At every turn, she's demanded better treatment for those who live with mental illness. Along the way she's run more than a few people off the road, which doesn't seem to stop most of them from speaking highly of her.

As executive director of WAMI, Owen had a hand in virtually all major mental-health legislation in the state, including a law passed in the 1970s that allows involuntary commitment for those whose illness makes them a grave threat to themselves or others.

In 1989, she stayed at the table until the state's ambitious mental-health reforms were hammered out. She pushed doctors to challenge conventional wisdom on causes of mental illness and haunted mental-health agencies if she thought they came up short in caring for their clients.

Owen has no plans to let up now. With retirement she has simply zeroed in on a formidable international target — the pharmaceutical industry that she says overcharges, particularly for drugs used to fight manic depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

On Wednesday, Owen started her alleged retirement in a familiar hearing room in Olympia, long silver earrings and slightly graying ponytail bobbing as she emphasized her key points. She urged the Senate Committee on Health & Long-Term Care to fight against high drug costs, a struggle she likened to earlier legislative battles to get women the vote, protect American workers and abolish slavery.

"I applaud your efforts to loosen the grip held by the pharmaceutical industry over needy individuals of all ages who require prescription drugs but cannot access them," Owen told the committee as it heard testimony on three bills intended to reduce drug costs.

When the petite Owen, sitting ramrod-straight, finished her impassioned statement, an awed whisper came from one spectator at the back of the room: "Damn, she's good."

Family tragedy, then resolve

Owen's influence expanded beyond the state long ago, powered by her own family tragedy and astonishing energy.

Within a year of forming Washington Advocates for the Mentally Ill, she helped corral 220 people nationwide to form the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). She was motivated by the illness of her son, John Lewis Owen Jr., she says.

In 1974, her gifted 17-year-old began to withdraw. "We dismissed it at first," Owen recalled.

"He managed to graduate, but he was hospitalized during his senior year," she said.

The hell that followed would be familiar to anyone who has watched a promising young person descend into schizophrenia, a biochemical disturbance of the brain that usually occurs in the late teens or early 20s.

John was plagued by voices, terrified by threats only he could hear and see. He was catatonic, wound into a gnarled posture. He developed dyskinesia, or uncontrolled, jerky movements.

"He was hibernating. He was living in a box in the basement," Owen said, her expressive face slackening as she remembers. "Then he made a noose and hung it up."

The day she stood staring at that noose, Owen said, "I realized that here I was, an educated person, his mother, and I could not help him. It triggered my determination."

From the first, Owen chose to speak out about the particular pain of raising a child with schizophrenia. "There is such turmoil and tragedy that comes of living with an individual who changes — before your eyes! — from a happy, promising person to one tormented and driven by demons," she said.

Nearly 13 years ago John started taking the drug Clozapine, which eliminated some physical symptoms and tamed many of his fears. He now has a job and lives in a group home he helped build.

John chooses his words with care: "Mom's been with me for years. She is always very supportive of me."

A whirlwind of activity

Eleanor Owen always has been a high-energy force to be reckoned with, says her husband of nearly 50 years. "I've never been able to keep up," said John Owen, whose work for Boeing brought the couple from New York to Seattle in 1955. "About the only thing I can hold over her is that I'm a week younger than she is."

Having grown up in a large Italian family in Upper New York state, Owen said she came by her gregarious ways naturally. "If my six siblings and I were in school now, we'd all be on Ritalin," she declared.

The women in the DeVito clan are all alike, she said. "We interrupt and listen at the same time, love to shop and we notice everybody's teeth."

Owen honed the family gift of gab by studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She worked as a costume maker in the New York City theater and dance world. She earned two degrees at the University of Washington, including a master's in educational psychology in 1974. While raising John and daughter Susan and teaching, Owen squeezed in an astonishing amount of work for the state and national advocacy groups.

"I don't know what she runs on," said Seattle attorney Gerry Tarutis, a NAMI board member who has known Owen for 16 years. "She gets up at 4, stays up until way past midnight. I've seen her drive to Olympia twice in one day, then come home at night and return phone calls."

Strangers from around the country call Owen for help, Tarutis said. "Parents have called Eleanor, worried about a son or daughter living on the streets here in Seattle," Tarutis said. "She'd meet 'em at the airport, then drive them to all the shelters to see if their kids were there."

Even when Owen's relentless pursuit of things she believes in rubs others the wrong way, "they respect her," Tarutis said.

Force to be reckoned with

Owen's ability to shift swiftly from charm to charge! is legendary, said Eric Trupin, UW professor and vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Science.

"One minute you're having a lovely conversation in the hall, then you go into the meeting and — well, if she feels you are not aligned with her perspective, she'll take you on. It shocks people — and that can be a good thing."

Trupin met Owen about 20 years ago when she took on the UW. "The mental-health field had historically blamed families for suffering mental illness on their children, rather than looking at it in a much more empirical and scientific basis," Trupin said. "Eleanor rightly wanted this major institution to get more involved in new research and improve the training of our people."

Did she get her way?

"Absolutely," Trupin said. "We learned a lot from her, and maybe she learned a little bit from us."

Unlike some of her partners-in-advocacy over the years, Owen is rarely described as a consensus builder. Armed with a weighty Rolodex, an avalanche of research and a remarkably youthful presence (she credits dark-green leafy vegetables and dance classes), she wears down resistance by burying opponents with facts, figures and sheer stamina.

Former state senator and retired King County Superior Court Judge Janice Niemi remembers Owen as a driving force during the 1989 legislative session, which produced a bipartisan, $65 million plan to overhaul the state mental-health system. "You can't really pass a comprehensive bill like this without what you might call a 'bulldog,' and that was Eleanor."

A current nickname for Owen in Olympia is "The Barracuda."

Owen has battled with Amnon Shoenfeld, coordinator of Crisis and Commitment Services for King County, the agency that oversees involuntary commitments of mentally ill residents. "Over the years, Eleanor has been critical of this office for not interpreting the law from her perspective," Shoenfeld said, "and over the years, I've been disputing that."

While they didn't always agree on specific cases, Shoenfeld said, he respects her enormously. "She has a great heart. She has devoted her life to this and has really kept the focus on helping the most disabled people."

On her last Monday as WAMI's executive director, Owen busied herself getting ready for a trip to Olympia, while holding forth on the future of mental-health advocacy. She located her black-leather briefcase, dappled with worn spots and badly overloaded, then crammed in another handful of folders. When a scrap of paper floated free and disappeared beneath her desk, she bent herself like a hairpin to retrieve it, without pausing for breath.

"WAMI is the country's largest state mental-health advocacy group of its kind — we've got 1,300 members," she says, popping up from under her desk. "But if we know there's 120,000 people in our publicly funded mental-health system, what's so wonderful about 1,300? There's always more we can do."

Kimberly B. Marlowe can be reached at 206-464-2061.

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