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Memories of Ethel Werfel Owens

December 21     Mindy Duitz

"From an old acquaintance!  I was moved to see your Mom’s obit in the NY Times today and wanted to reach out and send virtual hugs.

It brought back a vivid memory from the summer of 1969 when I was camping in a small tent (with my boyfriend at the time) at the campground above the city of Florence.**  I had just completed a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome (I was 21; studying to be an art historian/classical archaeologist), and was enjoying some freedom while taking in the art and culture all around---and living on the proverbial $5 a day. And, that is how I met your Mom and all of you as my neighbors in the campground.

We immediately bonded over shared passion for the arts, for travel, for progressive politics and hailing from Jewish immigrant families in Brooklyn. I remember thinking I would have no idea how to travel and camp by myself with three young boys and was already impressed. We all shared some tourist moments and lots of time talking and enjoying each other when back “home” at the campsite.

Your Mom and I stayed in touch for quite a while and I enjoyed visiting the Brooklyn house and getting lots of encouragement about pursuing my career in the arts. When I became a museum director (Staten Island Children’s Museum; Brooklyn Children’s Museum) she was very pleased. We drifted out of communication after a while, but I always enjoyed following your careers and recall that our paths would cross every so often when I was working in Brooklyn.

Such a warm recollection from the hilltop in Italy. It brings a smile to my face. There is no surprise about what creative and caring people you all evolved to be. Be well."

** NOTE FROM CHRIS OWENS:  Thank you, Mindy!  Our wonderful meeting with you actually took place in the Summer of '74.  Yes, we were in the neighboring tent and, yes, you and Mom totally bonded!  But my brothers and I were arguing about the correct title of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog," which was on the campground jukebox.  Plus, we all know that a 15 year-old me remembers things that a 10 year-old me would not!  It was Italy in the summertime :)  And Mom had her hands very full with the three of us -- 15, 13 and 10!

December 21     Amy Blaine

"Wow!  Came to your memorial page from your mom’s obituary in the Times. What an extraordinary life and an extraordinary woman! Thank you for sharing your family’s story with us and may her memory be a blessing!!"

December 20     Prof. Robert L. Kendrick

"Memories of Cuba 1986.  My deepest condolences to the whole family.  EWO was on a "Music in Cuba" trip with me, I think in January 1986, and she was always a wonderful and inquisitive presence. Now that I read her whole biography, I understand better her musical knowledge and her questions.

Listening to her own life stories while we were in Cuba was also fascinating. A life well-lived in the service of social justice, full of artistic endeavor. I will miss her a lot."

Prof. R.L. Kendrick, Depts of Music & Romance Languages, Univ. of Chicago

December 16     Prof. Steve C. Gold

"Enduring memories of Ethel Owens.  Meeting my friend Chris' mother for the first time when we were in high school. Thinking: "Wow. The New School!" Thinking: "Formidable!" Learning about the trip across the Deep South. Thinking: "Tough!" Watching Ethel and my mother play "Can You Top This" about their sons at Harvard. If you know the word "kvelling," this was it in action. Thinking: "Jewish Mothers!"

Seeing Ethel, in her 80s, meet my mother-in-law, in her 80s, in Westport, Connecticut. They played "Can You Top This" about their progressive bona fides. Thinking: "Unreconstructed Lefties!" Visiting Ethel's house in Westport, near the site of my wedding. Admiring the art. Thinking: "Whoa. Global. SERIOUSLY eclectic." Visiting Ethel in The Little Nursing Home just last year. Thinking: "Her standards have not relaxed one bit."

I was never Ethel's student in a formal way. But it's easy to see what a blessing it would have been to have her as a teacher. And it's easy to see the results in her sons. Ethel was a force of nature, and all nature diminished when she passed."

December 3     Alma Concepcion

"The highlight of my freshman year at the University of Puerto Rico was my Honors English Class with Miss Ethel Werfel. I can say that she was my best teacher ever. I will never forget reading King Lear under her guidance and her creative assignments, as well as the spirit of so many other great literary works.

Strong yet caring, strict but generous with her attention, Miss Werfel became a longtime friend. At that time I met her husband, Major Owens, and their newborn baby, Chris. We corresponded for some time and I visited her and her small children at their home in Brooklyn with my husband Arcadio on an unforgettable Christmas morning. Then I lost contact.

I am so happy I was able only a few years ago to reconnect with her. I cherish our visits to her home in Montclair, and hers to ours in Princeton. My husband and I delighted in hearing her tell stories of an extraordinary life. She will always be remembered for her remarkable existence, and for the rich legacy she passed on to her students and friends."

November 3     Maureen Edelson

“It is a mitzvah in my family’s life to have reconnected with her since she & my mother Edith became neighbors in the 1970s in New York State, and get to know the rest of your family.  Thank you for providing these connections.  I will long remember her conversations several years ago when your family visited at Beaver Dam Lake, and my last visit with you & Ethel in Montclair – Summer 2019.”

November 3     Diane Murray

“Ethel, in a canopy of green, you embodied a rich, red vibrato; the Flame-of-the-Forest in its ever-blooming glory. My deepest condolences to all you, her dear ones, as we all journey in this Great Mystery.”

November 2     Dr. Peter Chatard

“I am heart-broken about this.  Ethel more than any teacher that I have had influenced and changed my life.  She opened up my life and introduced me to art, music and literature that I would not have known the existence of had she not been at Morehouse at that critical point in my life.  There is no way that I could have paid back her gifts to me and the Morehouse classes of 1956, 1957, and 1958.”

November 2     Mary Christopher

“I always remember her fierce intelligence and strength balanced by her perfectly childlike impishness.”

November 2     Monique Balsamo

“We met Ethel seven years ago when we moved into [xx] Cloverhill. We were welcomed by you, we were invited to celebrate Ethel’s 90th birthday (Louis and I had never been able to drink ouzo, but we so loved that she could and did!), and shared some evenings with her in our yard. Ethel was fierce, intelligent, engaging and funny, and we were blessed to get to know her.

Sadly, time stole her memories of us away, and she couldn’t remember our evening conversations, our names or our home, but we will forever have her amazing stories, the way she made us feel like family and the encouragement she offered our youngest child to strive for greatness, to learn, to sing, to play and perform. Our hearts are with you all, and we are here for you should you ever need anything. May Ethel Rest In Peace and Rise in Glory.”

November 1     Steve & Sheli Danziger

“We consider ourselves so very fortunate to have experienced first hand the strength, wisdom & love that she freely and willingly gave to all of us who were lucky to be included in her circle of learning. James Joyce may have written that “life is the best teacher” but Joyce had also never met Ethel Owens. With so much Shakespeare yet to “read”, so much Bach, Mozart & Beethoven yet to “hear” and so much Joyce yet to somehow “comprehend”, we can only imagine how much more literary knowledge and musical understanding we could have achieved, if only we had met this marvelously energetic and feisty nonagenarian years earlier.

Aristotle once said, "a true disciple shows his appreciation by reaching further than his teacher." So reach we shall, Ethel. In the short time that we knew you, you have managed to fully enrich our lives with your infectious enthusiasm and unselfish sharing of that most precious gift - - the gift of learning how to "truly read". For all that you taught us Ethel...we will never forget!”

November 1     Jeff Hoey

“All of us at New Jersey Peace Action are saddened beyond words to learn of the passing of Ethel, a longtime supporter and unstoppable force. Not that many years ago, as many of you know, Ethel was a leader of our Move the Money campaign and was instrumental in getting a resolution passed by the Montclair Township Council strongly urging the reallocation of federal tax dollars from war to human needs. It was such a proud moment for us and it was Ethel that got it done! Never afraid of speaking her mind, she leaves the world safer, more peaceful and more just. She will be missed.”

November 1     Peggy Monges

“I met Ethel when she came to her first NJ Peace Action Soup Luncheon at Bloomfield High School. When she walked into the room, I realized that she was a newcomer to NJPA, so I introduced myself and sat her at a table with some gregarious folks. And that was the beginning of Ethel's involvement with NJPA. She worked hard on the Move the Money campaign, influencing the Montclair Town Council to pass a resolution to move money from war to peace, offered her home for a fundraising event, and volunteered for various other tasks. Ethel was a powerful woman, and a role model. I am grateful that I got to know her!”

October 31     Charlene Gilbert

 “Your mom was a fierce, smart, and beautiful woman.”

October 31     Casey Carpenter

“How The Inimitable Ethel Owens Occurred to Me.  Firecracker. Trailblazer. Exemplar. When I met Ethel at one of the neighborhood gatherings, our homeowner's association had revitalized. We gathered to discuss community issues and made it a practice to welcome newcomers. I immediately was drawn to Ethel because of her story. What??!! She is 87 and just bought a house? Amazing! Cool! Risky?

As I got to know her more and more, I gleaned additional treasures -- what it was like to raise three biracial sons in Brooklyn. How she engineered a switcharoo when purchasing her Brooklyn home (she was the "buyer" face so that the realtor didn't realize her husband was black,) and how she handled being Major's wife while he campaigned in Brooklyn. To do these things in 2020 would have their own have done them in the sixties...I cannot even imagine. When I visited her home, she regaled us of how she and Mittie carried objets d'art home from her worldwide travels. I mean, lugging weighty wood sculptures and the like! (I totally would have done the same.) I enjoyed her backyard birthday party several years ago (can't quite remember the milestone) and I wondered, what kind of gift do I even give such an accomplished lady? One who's seen and experienced sunrises on different continents? An activist, lover of music, art, and theatre? Not quite "seen it all" but surely close.

Ethel's thanks and appreciation for my simple handmade felted scarf was heartfelt. If you met her, you'd never forget her -- opinionated, incisive, wise as all get-out...and full of love. Thank you, Ethel, for being the beacon and encouraging culture from the southeastern corner of Cloverhill Terrace. Until we meet, my Taurus sister!!”

October 31     Katherine DeFoyd

“Your mother was a true force of nature and a bright bright star.  The stars in the sky are much brighter as she joins them.”

October 31     Sharon Myrie

“Your Mom was a very special woman.  I loved her and will miss her.”

October 31     Ted Geier

“So, so sorry for you, Geoffrey, Mitty, your family’s, and our world’s loss.  Carpe diem.”

October 31     Carla Taylor

“Nothing ever prepares us for a loss of this magnitude. Your mom loved you and your brothers so much. I could see how she looked at the three of you with such pride.

 I remember when I had a discussion with her about raising three boys and I complemented her on what a strong, loving mother she was. Each of her sons, talented and wonderful people.”

October 30     Matt Meyer

“Heartfelt condolences, love, and healing energy to you, to Brother Mitty and your whole extended family. What a glorious woman and life lived! What an honor to have known both her and your dad! What a tribute, to have raised such children - you guys - who we would agree are among the great menschs of the world, now with your own glorious children!”

October 30     Amelie Tseng

“I feel fortunate to have met the remarkable Ethel over several occasions during her life in Montclair. She was sharp as a whip and truly a force of nature who loved her family dearly. As one transplanted Brooklynite to another, I so appreciated her chutzpah! May she Rest In Peace.”

October 30     Linda Kuriloff

“I’ll always remember Ethel for her strong opinions and commitment to others’ growth and development. Years ago, she arranged for me to bring my solo show, Linda Means to Wait, to her senior condo (I think it was) community to perform for her neighbors. The show was early in its development, but Ethel envisioned it going to Broadway or off-broadway if the word got out about it. She arranged an after-performance discussion accompanied by tea and pastries so the other residents could give me their input. There was another solo show running off-broadway at the time, The Syringe Tree, which Ethel thought would work well in duo presentation if we went the Broadway route. I was inspired by how ambitious she was for me, but also left with a feeling of responsibility to live up to her hopes in some way.

In January of 2019, I got to spend an afternoon with Ethel talking about her life. I had scheduled the meeting with the hopes of recording it for posterity, but wasn’t yet familiar enough with my camera to be ready when the day came. We met nonetheless. She told me about her upbringing, her feelings of lostness when her mother died during her teenage years, her resolve to fulfill her intellectual aspirations despite any resistance she felt from those who thought she should focus on getting married and building a family, as women in those days were expected to do. She told me about writing letters to many different universities explaining that she wanted to study music, anthropology and their social intersection; and it was a professor from the University of Chicago who responded favorably. I was so surprised, as it mirrored some experiences my father had while he was in South Africa looking for an educational opportunity overseas.

Ethel went on to talk about her initial reticence about identifying as Jewish when she got to Morehouse, as there was great anti-Semitism in the region and on campus when she arrived; but there came a time when something occurred where she felt it imperative to publicly speak up and speak out against dangerous ignorance. She talked about meeting Major who was a student at Morehouse that she recognized was a gifted speaker. There were groups (with a civil rights focus) she helped organize on campus and there was a great sense of hope among students about society moving forward and changing societal injustice. She had a lot of ambition for Major, likened him to having the charisma of Dr. King, and envisioned that he would make lasting contributions to society on behalf of African-Americans and the greater society.

We talked for almost two hours and I really wish I had recorded because there were way too many details to remember, but I recall experiencing a great sense of admiration for the teenaged girl who lost her supportive and ambitious mother at such a crucial time in her life and, despite the loss, grew into a woman who likely surpassed her mother’s ambitions. Her memory lives on in the humans she raised, their children and all those touched along the way. I, for one, am grateful to have known her.”

October 30     Cherine Anderson

“My deepest condolences on the transition of Mrs. Owens. I remember meeting her on several occasions and I believe the last time was at an Off-Broadway production. I loved her firecracker spirit and after just reading the beautiful memorial written about her I now see where you lads get your musical talent and more.”

October 30     Anonymous

“I don’t think I need to say too much about what Ethel meant to me. I’ve said it to her in writing and in person over the years. A thoroughly unique woman, she deserves a book written about her life. I hope you might consider writing one some day. I will never forget her.”

October 30     Stacey & Matthew Weinstein

“We were very saddened at the news of Ethel’s death. Over the years, we came to love and respect her for the woman she was, for her brilliance, for her appreciation of the arts, for the love of her family and friends and for dedication to peace and justice and a better world. She will be missed but not forgotten.  I took many photos of Ethel and her family over the years which I’d like to share.  With love and sadness in our hearts.”

October 30     Sharon Myrie

“I have to collect my thoughts to add to this beautiful tribute to your Mom..  Memories keep flowing through my head right now.  Right now, I'm shedding several tears for the incomparable, one-of-a-kind Ethel.  She welcomed me into this country with open arms. She will be deeply missed. “

October 29     Kim Fish

“Our hearts are so heavy to hear of Ethel's passing. We know what it's like to lose someone so dear. She was an amazing woman and raised 3 amazing sons! We will miss her fascinating stories and lively discussions of her teaching days, many travel adventures, and love for the arts, music, and literature.”

October 29     Patricia Taylor

“She was large and in charge, bigger than life and a force to be reckoned with. She couldn't have been prouder of her 3 boys.”

October 24     Cynthia Dantzic

“From the first time I met Ethel, pushing Mitty in a baby carriage at a musical performance at LIU sometime in the ‘60s, to the years she was my son’s piano teacher with annual student recitals always concluding with a performance by the Owens brothers playing 'Obla Di-Obla Dah', she was a major part of my life, with her strong, focused, progressive and outspoken personality.  Her devotion to her three sons has been simply unmatched and Ethel’s influence will be remembered for ages to come.”

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