ETHEL WERFEL OWENS
May 14, 1923
October 27, 2020
As has been noted by her sons and many other admirers, you could not break the mold after Ethel Werfel Owens was born -- there was no mold. Ethel was an incredible and unique individual who has now joined the ancestors.
Thank you for the support and love shared with our family. A private viewing took place on Thursday, October 29 in Montclair. It is our hope that a full memorial service will be held within the next year.
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ETHEL WERFEL OWENS
Ethel Werfel - a white, Jewish Brooklyn gal - married a Black man (a future Congressman!) whom she met while teaching at Morehouse College in 1952. She had emerged from a patriarchal household as a progressive maverick. She became a gifted teacher and evangelist for artistic sensibility and critical thinking as a bedrock for the nurturing of democracy. She traveled the world; and she raised three bi-racial boys. Yes, Ethel Werfel Owens led a rather remarkable life.
The only girl in an Orthodox Jewish household, Ethel's intellectual gifts -- especially in music and Latin at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School - went unappreciated by her traditionally business-oriented father, Isadore Werfel. Her adoring, musically-inclined mother, Lena – whose thrift made possible her daughter's prized Baldwin upright piano – died when she was in high school.
Guided by her older brother Lou - a venerated politically progressive rabbi and pacifist who nonetheless enlisted as a chaplain during WWII and died in a plane crash - she rejected shallow, constricting notions of Judaism while retaining its tradition of prophetic justice. This was later captured in her own family's annual Black-Jewish Liberation Passover Seder.
Propelled by her talent and chutzpah, Ethel graduated from 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. The racial segregation of 1950s Chicago left an imprint, as had the prior experience of seeing Paul Robeson in Othello on Broadway, and then a summer in North Carolina working with a Quaker youth camp.
This was followed by a teaching offer from the venerable Dr. Benjamin Mays of Morehouse, “the Harvard of the South.” There – as well as at the nearby spiritually visionary and racially integrated commune of Koinonia – lessons of common humanity were honed. 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.
Loving stories still abound among Ethel's grateful students, who included future Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, acclaimed Atlanta minister William Guy (former pastor, Friendship Baptist Church), prominent surgeon Peter Chatard (who, following Miss Werfel’s class, forced himself the next summer into the segregated New Orleans art museum), Chicago educator, writer, and Marxist scholar Finley Campell, future New York Met Donn Clendenon, and future husband/politician, Major Robert Owens.
After Ethel received a Fulbright Fellowship, which she used to travel with Major in Europe, the couple were married in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. She taught at the university and their first son, Christopher, was born in San Juan.
Upon returning to her native Brooklyn in 1959, Ethel’s shrewdness in the purchase of their Prospect Heights brownstone outwitted the shyster realtor who typically upped the price for Black buyers. In the next five years, the couple had two more sons, Geoffrey and Millard. Between baby hauling and chauffeuring, Ethel was a force in the local PTA (demanding, among other things, money for musical instruments), Women's Strike for Peace (against the Vietnam War), and the Martin Luther King Coalition.
The Sixties through the Eighties were devoted largely to child-rearing - cultivating her boys' intellectual and artistic sensibilities and guiding their paths. Ethel also became a beloved (though feared) piano teacher, as well as an award-winning (though feared) adjunct professor at NYU, the New School, and Marymount College.
Admittedly, Ethel’s primary worldview was western classical arts: you could have left her on a desert island with a copy of King Lear, a painting by Picasso, a poem by Dylan Thomas, and a recording of Mozart's clarinet concerto. Her artistic sensibilities however transcended conventional boundaries, resulting in the sounds of Odetta, Josh White and Pete Seeger around the house; an impressive array of West African masks, Zimbabwean Shona sculpture, and Australian aboriginal painting; and the supplementing of her boys' classical string instrument training with Babatunde Olatunji's drumming classes in Harlem.
Ethel's prodigious taste for travel and world culture brought her not only to Paris, Portugal, Prague, Rio, Rome and Russia – but to Guatemala and Greece, Canada, Cuba and China, Mexico, Mali, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania, and newly liberated South Africa and Namibia.
Mom - for a life richly lived, here are some additional highlights that we, your sons, would like to share about you:
* Your reveling in the joy, beauty and shared humanity around the world.
* Your celebration of art, music and theater - especially when your fingers graced the piano with us as a quartet.
* Your arrest with two of us and the Berrigan brothers in the ‘80s at the Pentagon.
* Your railing against Republicans from your armchair - surrounded by piles of old New York Times and Nation magazines - and your explosive laughter at Calvin Trillins’ columns.
* Your writing, at age 88, an instrumental editorial and successful lobbying of Montclair elected officials along with NJ Peace Action to pass an exemplary symbolic resolution against military spending.
* Your receipt over the years of messages from former students sharing with us how much “Miss Werfel changed my life” (bless you Finley, Peter, Millie and Alma!).
* Your stealthy nab of that kiss from Harry Belafonte at the War Resisters League 90th celebration.
* Your adoration of your grandkids.
* Your relentless stance for art, truth and justice ... and for us.
Ethel was born on May 14, 1923 and passed on October 27, 2020 in Montclair, NJ. She is survived by her sons, Christopher, Geoffrey and Millard (Mitty), her daughter-in-law Josette, and her grandchildren, Elijah, Jordyn, Sampson and Naia. Beloved in passing, her legacy will live on.
Ethel Werfel Owens - Presente!