Obituary: Ethel Werfel Owens
Ethel Werfel Owens of Montclair, a teacher and evangelist for artistic sensibility and critical thinking, died on Oct. 27, 2020. She was 97.
Born on May 14, 1923, she was the daughter of Isadore and Lena Werfel.
She was a graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and of Brooklyn College, studied conducting at Juilliard, and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago’s MFA program, where she became a disciple of the pioneering humanities program under Robert Maynard Hutchins.
She subsequently received a teaching offer from Morehouse College, where she met her husband, the future congressman Major Robert Owens, in 1952. There, the humanities club she created produced “The Phoenix,” a sophisticated and critically acclaimed journal of creative writing and literary analysis composed completely by young Black men, most of whom had never before written a poem.
After she received a Fulbright Fellowship, which she used to travel with Owens in Europe, the couple were married, and they had three sons, Christopher, Geoffrey and Millard. During her child-raising years she was a force in the local PTA, the Women’s Strike for Peace against the Vietnam War, and the Martin Luther King Coalition. She was also a piano teacher and an adjunct professor at NYU, the New School and Marymount College.
Her primary worldview was Western classical arts, but her artistic sensibilities transcended conventional boundaries, resulting in the sounds of Odetta, Josh White and Pete Seeger and an array of West African masks, Zimbabwean Shona sculpture and Australian aboriginal painting around the house, and the supplementing of her boys’ classical string-instrument training with Babatunde Olatunji’s drumming classes in Harlem.
She had a prodigious taste for travel and world culture that brought her to Paris, Portugal, Prague, Rio, Rome and Russia, as well as Guatemala and Greece, Canada, Cuba and China, Mexico, Mali, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania, and newly liberated South Africa and Namibia.
Her sons recall that, though she was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, she rejected constricting notions of Judaism while retaining its tradition of prophetic justice. This was later captured in her biracial family’s annual Black-Jewish Liberation Passover Seder.
They also recall her celebration of art, music and theater; her arrest with two them and the Berrigan brothers in the 1980s at the Pentagon; her writing, at age 88, of an instrumental editorial and successful lobbying of Montclair officials along with NJ Peace Action to pass a symbolic resolution against military spending; her stealthy nab of a kiss from Harry Belafonte at the War Resisters League’s 90th celebration; her adoration of her grandkids, and her relentless stance for art, truth and justice.
She is survived by her sons, Christopher, Geoffrey and Millard (Mitty); her daughter-in-law Josette, and her grandchildren, Elijah, Jordyn, Sampson and Naia.
Arrangements were by Martin’s Home for Service.