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Monday, March 18, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Frances Owen, pioneering School Board member, dies

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Frances Penrose Owen was never one to miss an opportunity. When the Seattle School District chose to name its auditorium, the former board member decided to give a lecture.

Leading a major school district is not an easy job, Mrs. Owen told the crowd. The trick, she said, is not to get emotionally involved in the issues. Advocate what you believe in, but always let opponents have their say. Never let them see you angry.

Mrs. Owen, whose tactics might seem antiquated in a society where volume is often equated with passion and moderation with a lack of conviction, died March 9. She was 102.

But the world she grew up in was different. When she was elected in 1945, only one other woman had ever served on the Seattle School Board. Until she retired in 1967, she was still officially known as Mrs. Henry B. Owen.

She became one of the most important women in the state. She spent 22 years on the School Board and served on the board of Children's Hospital for 36 years, proving to be a prodigious fund-raiser who helped turn a small clinic with an all-volunteer staff into one of the premiere pediatric-care centers in the country.

Added to that was 18 years as Washington State University's first female regent. In 1979, WSU named its new science and engineering library after her.

Eleven years later, when Mrs. Owen was presented with a Medal of Merit, the state's highest award, WSU President Emeritus Glenn Terrell said, "Frances is a rare combination of strength, gentleness, intelligence and forcefulness."

People were in awe of her, said a colleague from Children's Hospital.

"Anything she wanted to do she did," said Dr. Jack Docter, the hospital's former medical director and first paid employee. "I don't know if I've met any who was more impressive."

The daughter of Stephen B.L. Penrose, president of Whitman College in Walla Walla for 40 years, she was taught not to view her gender as an obstacle to achievement. The Penrose family emphasized education and community service. She took only three years to earn a degree in Greek, graduating magna cum laude. A master's degree in education from a school affiliated with Harvard University quickly followed.

In 1925, she took a job with Frederick & Nelson as a personnel training officer. She quit when she married her boss, Henry Owen, 10 years later. But she hardly stopped working, launching into a series of volunteer positions not long after her only child was born.

"I didn't have a stay-at-home mom who did milk-and-cookie things," said her daughter, Frances Pease, who lives in Portland. "She often wasn't home when I got home from school."

When Mrs. Owen ran for the School Board in 1945, there was little precedent for her victory. Eleanor Toews, the school-district archivist, said radical journalist Anna Louise Strong had been elected to the board in 1917 but recalled one year later.

For much of her tenure, Mrs. Owen served as the lone woman.

"It was still very much a man's world," said Ellen Roe, who was elected to the board in 1975 but was involved in school issues during Mrs. Owen's tenure. "Of course, it didn't stop her from becoming a major player in this city."

While on the board, Mrs. Owen worked hardest to get the district's high schools to push students toward college, Roe said.

"She was very well-educated and thought everyone should be," Roe said. "The world was becoming more complex and she recognized that people needed an education to get anywhere."

Much of her time was spent at School Board meetings or helping to organize the move of Children's Hospital from Queen Anne to Laurelhurst. However, Mrs. Owen also loved tennis, hiking and skiing, which led her to join the Mountaineers Club.

Mrs. Owen's niece, Peggy Corley of Seattle, said other than that her biggest passions were bridge and Scrabble, which she often played with Dorothy Bullitt, now deceased, who founded KING Broadcasting, where Henry Owen later was an executive.

All sides played to win. "They played mean, very intense games of Scrabble," Corley said.

When her husband died in 1976, Mrs. Owen decided it was time to be known publicly as Frances Owen. She was no longer on the School Board but stayed involved in education, campaigning for numerous school levies. She continued working with the hospital as long as she could.

Four years ago, Mrs. Owen fell and broke a vertebra. The break healed quickly but cost Mrs. Owen her independence. While she couldn't get out as much, Pease said, her mother continued to be the same strong-willed woman.

When Mrs. Owen died March 9, the decision to go was hers, Pease believes: "It was time for her to go and she knew it."

She noted that Mrs. Owen — as always — was popular at the retirement home where she lived. "She was a very giving person," Pease said. "She was very wise. And she set a wonderful example to those around her."

In addition to Pease, Mrs. Owen is survived by a stepson, Henry B. Owen Jr. of Portland, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Horizon House. Remembrances are suggested to Horizon House or Plymouth Congregational Church, where Mrs. Owen had been a member since 1925.

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