Dr. O’dell Owens, public health leader, dead at age 74

Dr. O’dell Moreno Owens, a leader in health care and education in the Cincinnati region for decades who also was twice elected Hamilton County coroner, died Wednesday afternoon. The former fertility doctor was 74.

Owens last served as president and chief executive officer of the health education nonprofit Interact for Health from 2016 until his retirement in March 2021. He also advised Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber recognized him as a Great Living Cincinnatian. Owens’ inspiring and intense speech when he got the award moved some in the audience to ask why he wasn’t running for Cincinnati mayor.

Owens was well aware that his speeches were fiery. It was his way of making an impact without a stethoscope. “I wear my heart on my sleeve,” Owens explained in an April 2022 interview. “I never felt I left the practice of healing.”

“People loved the fact he would stand up for what he believed in and was very forthright in what he had to say,” said Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, who succeeded Owens as coroner.

In spring 2022, Dr. O'dell Owens was selected to receive the first Clara Barton Humanitarian of the Year award from the Greater Cincinnati Tri-State Chapter of the American Red Cross. Owens died Wednesday at the age of 74.

Improving the Cincinnati area, particularly its health, was always a central concern for Owens, who told an Enquirer reporter last week: “I’m saddened because I’m in the twilight years of my life and there are things we’ve made progress on but so much we have not. In order to make real change, we need to have collective impact. I’ve said the city of Cincinnati does not have collective impact because we don’t have collective will.”

Reaction to Owens’ death and the impact of his life came from across the region. Cincinnati’s city manager ordered that flags at city facilities be lowered to half-staff in Owens’ honor.

“Dr. Owens took care of our community from cradle to grave,” the board and staff of Interact for Health said in a statement. “He was a trailblazer, a leader, a friend and a mentor to many.”

Owens “spent his life giving life, creating pathways, creating potential,” said the Rev. Ennis Tait, pastor of New Beginnings Church of the Living God in Avondale. “When he talked to children, he opened their eyes to what can be. Even if they were told what couldn’t be. He showed them that your dreams of what could be can be a reality.”

“There are many reasons why O’dell is special. From a career standpoint, the amazing thing is how he was nationally recognized for his medical knowledge and his innovative procedures with in vitro fertilization,” said Eric Kearney, president of the African American Chamber of Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky.

“He’s had a great deal of success in business, not only businesses that he owned but also being on the board of directors of what was StarBank and now is U.S. Bank. That was groundbreaking,” Kearney said. Owens was on the bank’s board for 29 years.

“There wasn’t a bigger champion for Cincinnati than Dr. Owens. He worked tirelessly and selflessly, in so many different capacities over the years, to make us better people, better advocates, and a better community,” said Jill Meyer, president and CEO of the Cincinnati chamber, in a statement. “I’m grateful to have called O’dell a friend and will miss his big-hearted laughter as much as his no-nonsense, firm push to improve the status quo.”

Owens’ early life: From the West End to Yale

Born and reared in Cincinnati’s West End, Owens first went to Antioch College. He also held a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health from Yale University, where he also completed his residency, in obstetrics and gynecology. He completed a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology at Harvard Medical School and served as a clinical instructor in reproductive endocrinology.

Returning to Cincinnati in 1982, Owens established an in vitro fertilization program at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. He achieved Cincinnati’s first successful conception and delivery as well as the first pregnancy from a frozen embryo.

“I just made a promise to myself that since I had had some mark of success – way beyond what I was destined to be – I had to go back,” he said in an interview earlier this year.

Owens said in the interview that he had always worked to help children who could identify with him because he experienced poverty and racism in Cincinnati as a Black child whose mother died young.

Owens’ father, the sole parent of seven children, struggled with the “demons” of gambling and drinking. And young O’dell learned his family was poor. “I remember someone bringing us a basket on Thanksgiving and I was so hurt,” he said, “because I always brought my two cans to school for the poor families.”

Owens’ credited Dr. Clinton Buford, a Black surgeon, his wife Cathryn Buford of Cincinnati and their extended family for his work ethic. Owens babysat for the Buford family as a teenager and they took him in and paved a path for him to enter college.

During his tenure as Hamilton County coroner, Dr. O'dell Owens investigated the deaths of two Colerain Township firefighters and reviewed his findings during a 2008 press conference.

From reluctant candidate to doctor with a pulpit

Owens was elected coroner in 2004 and reelected in 2008.

Kearney said that Owens “really turned the coroner’s office into something that was dynamic and community-oriented. And relevant even to high school students.”

Owens originally wasn’t sure he wanted to be a coroner when he was approached to run for the office – until he thought of how he could use it to help kids stay out of the morgue. Owens was up one night awaiting his teenage daughter’s return home from an evening out when Morgan called and said she couldn’t get there because police blocked the driveway to investigate a shooting. “I thought, what would have happened had Morgan been on time?”

“My platform was, the higher the education rate, the lower the homicide rate,” Owens said. He gave a thousand talks to students, educators, nonprofits and businesses geared toward equity during his tenure. “I told them, you need to heal personal relationships on a daily basis.” Something he says he never got to do with his mother.

For years, Owens gave students at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine their first presentation on their first day. “He inspired us to lead with empathy and compassion,” said Dr. Christopher Lewis, who was among those students in 1996. “He transformed our lives.” Now UC’s vice provost for academic programs, Lewis took over the talk from Owens in 2012 and said he does his best to emulate Owens’ “fiery speech.”

Among those who remember the speech, along with Owens’ lectures on infertility, is Sammarco. “Being a person of brown skin, we didn’t have a lot of professors with brown skin,” she said. “He made an impact on us.”

Owens’ life’s mission of positively impacting the lives of young people by encouraging them to stay in school, seek higher education and make good social choices was widely recognized, said Andrea Hatten, chief administrator for the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office.

“His legacy within the Cincinnati community is without question and his impact will continue,” she said.

“He was planning on visiting the new crime lab next week for a tour and to learn about how we perform virtual autopsy which we had discussed 10 years ago,” Hatten said. “I considered him a friend and mentor and he will be greatly missed.”

Owens stepped down as coroner in 2010 to become president of Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Later, he served as interim Cincinnati health commissioner.

He went to Interact in 2016 “knowing that this would be my last job,” Owens said in a statement then. “Whether helping a child get glasses and see the board in school for the first time, passing a model Tobacco 21 policy to deter youth from smoking or vaping or helping reduce opioid overdoses, I retire knowing that, together, we’ve made a lasting impact on our community’s health.”

Owens’ long record of community service included the board of the Cincinnati Fire Foundation; the Carl H. Lindner Jr. Family Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden; the Ronald McDonald House, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s Cincinnati Business Advisory Council. He was chairman of the Cincinnati Preschool Promise.

A view of the Dr. O'dell Owens mural on the WCET building in West End on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.

He also served on the boards of the University of Cincinnati, the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Cincinnati Red Cross, Fine Arts Fund (now ArtsWave) and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. For 10 years, he volunteered as chair of the annual CET Action Auction that supports Cincinnati’s public television programming.

At the end of 2020, Owens donated 54 acres that he owned in Walton, Kentucky, to the city to become a park.

Owens is survived by his wife, Marchelle, as well as sons Christopher and Justin, and daughter Morgan.

Morgan Owens said of her father: “My dad was everything. My family and I are at a loss. My father gave so much to this world, his lifelong mission was to make a difference.

“He certainly did. He touched many lives.

“Dad, your legacy will live on.”

Staff writers Quinlan Bentley, Terry DeMio, Sydney Franklin, Sharon Coolidge and Cameron Knight contributed, as did Enquirer investigations and enterprise editor Mark Wert and the Enquirer archives.

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