Wil Owens: The life of a Tam legend


By Max Shulman

“I guess I had been here two years,” recalled Wil Owens, Tam’s head campus supervisor. “A teacher called me down to the parking lot and said, ‘Wil, smell.’ We smelled nothing but marijuana emanating in volumes from a vehicle. So we found the student, and we asked him whether or not it would be okay if we searched his car. Upon searching the car, we found marijuana, quantities, large quantities. It was serious. He was in business. We found scales, we found paraphernalia…the irony of it all was that he saw nothing wrong with it.”

It is Owens’s response to the incident, however, that reflects the balance that he has found between being a strict campus supervisor, and having compassion for the entire student body. “Don’t get me wrong, if it had been off campus, I wouldn’t have cared. But to be on campus, and have that quantity, and the paraphernalia, it’s just wrong. And, he allowed us to go through his car…it was like he was asking us to bust him. I even told the young man. I said, ‘Did you want us to bust you?’ Eventually, it turned out that the kid told me that his parents didn’t believe he was a bad person. So I said to him, ‘You’re not a bad person, you’re just stupid.’ You were in business, I got it, but you were stupid…” Owens recalled with a laugh.

For nine years, Owens has graced Tam’s campus with his presence, disciplining students as necessary all the while maintaining both a pleasant attitude and a positive outlook on life in general.

“I say good morning to everyone, that is initially what I do,” said Owens. “I shake hands, pat people on the back, I hug people. I let them know its okay to be here. I’m saying, come in, have a good time, and make the most of [your experience] without being a problem.”

To truly understand Owens’s demeanor and attitude, however, one must look at Owens’s life before Tam.

“We’re talkin’ about the ‘50s, when I was in high school. We’re talkin’ about a small, coastal town in California…There weren’t many African-Americans there, I was the only one in the entire student body.”

Owens was an athlete in high school. This gained him recognition with both peers and teachers.

“Everybody knew me,” said Owens. “I don’t want to say I was ‘accepted,’ but that’s what it really boiled down to. I was Wil. Most people knew me as Wil, who played football, ran track, and always had a smile on his face.” Playing high school sports shaped a physical aspect of Owen’s character which the Tam community witnesses daily.

Owens’s cane has a back story. “[It] comes from an old football injury. I had a dislocated hip and it was repaired [surgically].” Owens had a cast running from his hip to the end of his leg and was bed-ridden for weeks. “I now walk with a limp because I refuse to have a hip replacement,” said Owens. “I just refuse. I don’t see the point in it.”

Needless to say, Owens’s high school experience was drastically different from that of most of Tam’s student body.

“Here, there is a diversification of people well beyond what I experienced while I was in high school,” said Owens. He sees a wide variety of kids every day, each landing in a different spot on the social spectrum, each with a different story, a different background. Perhaps partly due to his own high school experience, Owens manages to treat everyone equally, with a high standard of compassion.

Owens does notice that, though discrimination is not as obvious at Tam, it is still present. “Here, there is conflict,” he said, “It’s very sophisticated conflict, very sophisticated prejudice, it’s very sophisticated segregation, but it’s here. It gets colored in a lot of ways. Case and point: if you walk on this campus, you see groups of African-American students, always pocketed together. The one culture here that I think has more acceptance and mobility amongst the races, are the Latino kids…You don’t see them glomming together as a group, they are spread out over the campus, as opposed to the African-Americans. That all goes back to where they live. [The African-Americans] live in Marin City, which is an encapsulated environment,” said Owens. He continued, “My job here is to help the young African-Americans understand that there should be a greater emphasis on spreading yourself out, introducing yourself to more people. They see me do it all the time.”

After high school Owens served in the Army as a lieutenant. He served from 1964 to 1967. “I was drafted, there was a draft back then.” said Owens. ”We’re talking about the ‘50s and ‘60s. It wasn’t a volunteer army, it was conscription and it was everybody and anybody. If you could walk and breathe and talk you got drafted. From there, you had to make choices about where you were going to go and how you were going to live your life in the military. I chose the airborne, and from there I was sent to Vietnam, and from there I had a job that I had to do, a very specific job,” said Owens.

Owens was not willing to disclose any more information about his duties in the military. “It was simply reconnaissance,” said Owens, “and I’ll leave it at that…There were eight of us, and all eight of us got back…I’m very proud of the fact that all eight of us returned.” He was a part of the 101st airborne division, which required that he jump out of helicopters into the Vietnam jungle.

“Before they realized that it was a fool’s idea, they dropped a whole division into the Vietnamese jungle, and of course they were slaughtered. The advent of the helicopter made that all different, and so helicopters became the transport in the Vietnam War…Helicopters could go anywhere and everywhere as long as there were LZs (Landing Zones).”

Owens jumped out of numerous helicopters. “I did it for a reason. As a private first class, you only made ninety dollars a month. I could not live on ninety dollars a month, I don’t care what anybody thought. After finishing AIT (Advanced Infantry Training) going into the paratroopers allowed me to make more money. Every jump I made, I made more money. We were always jumping,” said Owens. He approximates that he made around twenty-five jumps. “There is no way for me to describe to you what it is to jump out of a plane. All you do is jump out of a plane, fall a few feet, and the pull your chute. You’re going at such a speed, you can’t even begin to fathom how fast you’re falling.” said Owens.

After the Army, Owens found himself in Marin, working at Sunny Hills Children’s Services in San Anselmo. Owens was required to work with teenagers who had been abused, abandoned, or otherwise traumatized at some point in their lives.

Owens eventually stopped working at Sunny Hills to take on the full-time job of being stay-at-home dad and take care of his daughter, Tam English teacher Christina Owens. “I was a house dad while my daughter was growing up. My wife was teaching at Redwood and my daughter was becoming of age where she no longer needed me around the house. So my wife says to me, ‘why don’t you go find yourself a job.’ So I said to her, that’s an idea.”

“So I came to Tam, and I went through the interview process. They called me back the same day and said; you’ve been hired.”

It was that hour long interview which would determine the next nine years of Owens life. “If I hadn’t gotten the job, I probably would have gone to a restaurant and looked at being a bar tender,” said Owens. “[Being around people] is very important to me, given that I’m a sociology graduate [from UC Berkeley]. I believe in helping people understand how their social settings impact their lives…I try to develop communities, a system that says; there is support here, whether you want it or not. I try to be the guide to help people find their way around it, and within it.”

As calm, cool, and collected his poise may make him appear, Owens takes his job of guiding a safe community very seriously. “Don’t treat this like middle school, this is not middle school, this is high school. We will bust you; we may not catch you the first time, we may not catch you the second time, but believe me, we will catch you. And we will catch you when you least expect it. When you think we’re not looking, that’s when we’re looking. That’s when we’re gonna find you, and that’s when we’re gonna come down on you,” Owens said.

A day in Owens’s shoes consists of constant interaction, conversation and action. “My day is impacted by people all the time, if not in crisis, then in laughter.When I leave, I look to the solitude of my house and the [jazz] music that I listen to,” said Owens.

Although Owens has decided to retire at the end of next year, it seems that he will miss his job and the Tam student body.

“If anything [this job] has made me younger. I have more energy, I’m more alert, I’m engaged continuously throughout the day. So how could I get old? If you’re interacting with young people who are enthused, and who are excited about learning…that makes the job a whole lot easier,” said Owens.