In a small A-frame home set back off a quiet residential street in Nacogdoches, an SFA student plugged away at political science homework, his duties as student body president and campaign fundraising for a would-be Texas senator.
Unbeknownst to Bill Owens ’73, each of these roles was one more step in his decades-long journey toward becoming a leading political figure and, eventually, two-term governor of Colorado.
“I am very proud to have graduated from SFA,” Owens said over the phone from his Denver-based office at international law firm Greenberg Traurig. “It was the perfect mix for me of education and the broader culture of college, which I think is so valuable. Any student who spends his or her college career at a desk studying without learning more about life is going to be shortchanged. The friends I met and the activities I participated in made me a much better public servant, as well as a better person.”
Budding poli-sci passion
Owens’ interest in politics solidified in high school after his father helped Jim Wright, future speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, get elected as a Texas congressman.
“I was first introduced to Jim Wright when I was 6 or 7 years old and always looked up to him — and was therefore really excited when he appointed me as his page in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Owens said. “I spent one year in high school working in the House of Representatives and around that time coincidentally became a Republican. I was in the House Chamber when Lyndon Johnson was president and gave his 1967 State of the Union address and was honored to work for Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole — all of whom were Republican members of the House at that time.”
Born and raised in Fort Worth, Owens attended Paschal High School and graduated in 1969. There were five children in the family, and Owens’ parents expected him and his brother to be responsible for putting themselves through college.
“I have three sisters, and in those days it was harder for the girls to have summer jobs and earn money compared to my brother and me,” Owens explained. “I could attend any school I could afford, so I looked at state schools such as SFA, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas. I chose SFA for its campus. I knew that I was going to get a lot out of any school, but I wanted a school about the size of SFA, and I just fell in love with the campus and the people. It had a lot going for it, even then, and certainly even more so now.”
Introduction to the Bushes
During his four-year tenure at SFA, Owens was active not only in the classroom but also as vice president and president of the student body. He also served as the student coordinator for George H.W. Bush’s unsuccessful 1970 campaign for the U.S. Senate. It was during that time that Owens would befriend future Texas governor and U.S. President George W. Bush.
“George Herbert Walker Bush ran for the U.S. Senate in Texas. I was the head of Students for Bush in East Texas in 1970, and the person I reported to was George W. Bush,” Owens said. “I was helping the father and was reporting to the son. So, I met George W. Bush in 1970, and we have been friends since.”
Road to Colorado’s Legislature
Living in Colorado had been a dream of Owens’ since a road trip to Wyoming during high school took him on a direct route through the state. But his move to the Midwest wasn’t immediate. After graduating with a master’s degree from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, Owens landed a position in Washington, D.C., as a management consultant with Deloitte, a large accounting firm.
With his sights still set on Colorado, Owens continued to apply for jobs in the state while working for Deloitte on the East Coast. Several years later, he was offered and accepted a position with the Gates Corporation in Colorado.
“I was always interested in public policy but didn’t want to work for government. I wanted to impact public policy,” Owens explained when discussing his choice of the LBJ School at the University of Texas. “What I wanted to do was to graduate from SFA and graduate school, settle down, and maybe someday go into public service. So from SFA, I went to LBJ, and I was one of the few graduates who didn’t go immediately into government.”
The governorship wasn’t a thought in Owens’ mind when he made the move west. It was a role that he said “accrued over time.”
“In 1982, there was the opportunity to run for the Colorado House of Representatives. I was elected to the House in ’82, and then in ’88, I ran for the state Senate,” Owens recalled. “So all of a sudden, I’m a state senator. A few years later, I went to lunch with a friend, and he said, ‘You know what, Bill? You can either be in the Legislature the rest of your life, or you can try to move up and out. If you win, that’s great. If you lose, you can always go back and build a career in the private sector.’
“I was elected state treasurer in 1994 and decided I would run for governor in 1998. I had seen George W. Bush run successfully for governor in Texas in 1996 and, as his friend, I followed his campaign model. He even came to Colorado twice to campaign for me in my 1998 race and was a big help in my ultimate win.”
Owens and his administration accomplished much during his eight years as the governor of Colorado.
“I loved being governor. It was everything I expected, and my team did a good job,” he said. “We were able to improve public education. We also worked on infrastructure — built light rail and passed a huge highway construction bond issue. I was governor during the Columbine shooting tragedy and during 9/11, so it was tough. But even so, I think being governor represents the best opportunity for public service, particularly as compared to Congress.
“I was proud of the fact that after my eight years as governor, I was more popular than when I started — and that doesn’t happen very often in today’s partisan political climate. I was elected by the narrowest margin in Colorado history in 1998 — I won by less than 1 percent. But, I was re-elected four years later by the largest margin in Colorado history. I am proud of that.”
Owens has, throughout the years, collected trinkets of knowledge on politics, serving the people and, exemplified by a tumultuous presidential election year, how the basics of democracy play out among the people.
“Democracy is not always a smoothly functioning mechanism,” Owens said. “We have arguments, we fight and we disagree. Democracy is not supposed to be boring and staid and composed. It is 300 million people deciding how they’re going to govern themselves. So my advice is to accept the fact that it’s not always going to be perfect and that, just like athletes, businesspeople and even educators, politicians can be flawed. So let’s use the process to pick the best people to serve, realizing we will not achieve perfection. Sometimes we are not going to have all the choices we want, but ultimately, we’ll be stronger because we have these loud, crazy, raucous things called ‘elections.’”
Owens fondly remembers his years at SFA and attributes many of the lessons he learned about connecting to people to his time there. He also was excited to learn the same little A-frame home that provided him a space to grow still remains, nestled peacefully on a residential street near the SFA campus.