Catherine Owens (R)
After graduation from Vassar I was hired as an editor by a wonderful, prestigious organization called the United Church Board of World Ministries, or UCBWM, which rolls off your tongue nicely and was a lovely place to work, off Riverside Drive in Manhattan. I remained in Manhattan for a few months, and was given an even better job at Houghton-Mifflin Publishing House. But I was restless, eager to be more creative, and too adventurous to settle in. I left Manhattan and, after some wandering, I found myself in the delightful arms of the Deep South, in Louisiana.
Because I chose to live in the bayou, the career opportunities created by my wonderful experience at Vassar were not there. I had all the skills and tools from my education but no clear way to apply them. There were mom-and-pop shops, and small stores, but none of them hired non-family, and none of that work suited me, in any case. It was clear I would have to create my own niche.
As I set about doing so, I also learned the water skills required for life in the bayou: how to pirogue the rivers in Louisiana, how to slide my pirogue under trees that had fallen across the water, rather than portage, without tipping my pirogue or letting the water moccasins hanging from the branches drop into my boat. I learned that the rapids are shallow while still waters run truly deep, with alligators. I learned how to recognize the difference between a stick bobbing in the water and an alligator’s eyes. They look identical, but the alligator doesn’t bob back up.
This was of special importance to me because my pirogue was ten feet long rather than twelve feet, and wider to compensate, and sat only one inch out of the water. I never did tip my pirogue, or panic, not even the time we saw the baby alligators tumbling out of a hole in the bank, with those little smiles, and their mother floating just beneath the still water nearby.
To earn a living, initially, I tutored English as a Second Language at the local community college. Through my first husband, a carpenter, I became a house painter, trim carpenter and wallpaper hanger, because there was always work and it paid well. I became very highly skilled. My first venture into “graduate school” was a class in learning to hang foil wallpaper, at a local paint store called Champagne Design. It was very Charlie Chaplin-esque.
I did this in coordination with my house painting jobs, through which I acquired the nickname "Whitefoot," for an incident coming down off a ladder, and a paint pan on the floor, an incident which I handled very professionally, I thought, with a minimum of hysterical laughter. By way of developing a more agreeable skill, I drew upon a childhood talent and became a professional piano teacher. I taught for years at a large studio, and continued my education too.
While I lived in Louisiana, in addition to classical piano, I was also inspired to play rags, jazz, blues. On the streets of New Orleans, I witnessed awesome jazz funerals, which you could only happen upon by luck. I met performers named Washboard Leo and Ironingboard Sam. Everyone knew where Fats Domino lived and the story of how, when he was between tours, he laid off his musicians, giving them armloads of his autographed pictures to sell, as though that could make them a living. I met a jazz pianist performing at one of the hotels, James Drew, a Yale graduate, and took some lessons from him. Before I moved back to New York, I played on stage at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
So, once I was back in New York, and breaking from my piano-practice cocoon to become a professional pianist, I played all kinds of music. I have played at restaurants, conventions, receptions, art galleries, Rotary International events, corporate parties, countless memorials for 9/11 victims, and the yearly classical recitals at my studio. I DJ'd and performed entire weddings, from ceremony to dinner music to dance. I have been a professional church organist and choir director for nearly thirty years. I also volunteered for Rotary functions, when my second husband, Bill, became District Governor.
Bill and I have lived on our hobby farm in Sullivan County for twenty years.
Bill is a home inspector and a scuba dive instructor at the highest level. He trained me, and we have gone on dive trips all over the world including the Galapagos Islands for our honeymoon on a live-on-board named the Lammer Law, looking for hammerhead and white tip sharks. Currents barrel in from all directions with no land mass to slow them down, and on one dive, Bill and I got caught in an opposite current from the rest of the divers. Within two minutes we were carried three miles from our panga (boat) and had to remain as still as possible in the water, no kicking; while we signaled with our siren to be picked up. On another dive, I got caught in the “washing machine”. You can imagine how that went. Bill has many more shark stories than I have; he’s been diving since he was sixteen.
When our community was faced with an outrageous case of voter fraud, Bill stepped out of his private success to become Mamakating Town Supervisor, calling in the FBI and putting the felons in jail. I compiled the vast community research that we turned over to the investigators.
Bill has created an environmental education center for our town, and protected the environment through our Comprehensive Plan. He made our town the first in New York State to require a hydrogeological study in regard to planning.
I ran for county legislator for Sullivan County. We both ran with a major party and an independent third party we created called the Rural Heritage Party. We both won by landslides. In addition to my concern over the fraud to which our town was subjected, I felt there was too much of a disconnect between the Legislature and the people in my district. I make it a point to be available to my constituents at every town board meeting.
We are citizen-statesmen; not professional politicians. I am the chair of Government Services and am a strong advocate for community colleges. I attended SUNY Orange before I went to my Ivy League school; and, after graduation, I attended a community college in Louisiana to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of music.
I am also chair of the Legislature's Agriculture and Sustainable Policy Committee. I’ve written two books and a musical, which played several theaters in Manhattan, featuring monarch butterflies, that quiet, wonderful, pressured species with no voice, and I try to give them a voice in my committees. Scuba divers are strong environmentalists. Even as far back as my life in Louisiana, I was involved in the idealistic manufacture of solar panels, but at that time there was the problem of energy storage. Now, remote net metering on the grid solves that. As a legislator now, I am proud of our successful push for hydroelectric power, solar power, electric vehicles and recharge stations in our County, and the attainment of our Climate Smart Certificate.
I am thrilled to be able to participate, with so many wonderful people here, in the achievement of so many things now that were only wishes back in the bayou.