Howard Beauchamp (pronounced Beech-um) Owens was born November 17, 1909 in Betterton, Maryland, the son of Howard Franklyn Owens and Anna Knotts Beauchamp Owens. His father had a degree from Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and was a prominent businessman in Kent County. His mother had a mathematics degree from Washington College, which was unusual for a woman in those days. She managed the Royal Swan Hotel, a business that attracted tourists and prominent hunters to the area to hunt on the nearby Great Susquehanna Flats. Betterton is a small town on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore that had popular bathing beaches and was a hub for recreational activities. Large pleasure boats brought tourists there from Baltimore and Philadelphia until some time in the 1960’s.
At the age of two, he contracted polio, an acute viral disease of the nervous system that can cause partial paralysis, muscular atrophy, and permanent deformities. He wore braces on his legs until he was nine, and a doctor told his parents not only that he would probably not live past the age of 20, but also that they should place him in a home for crippled children because he would be too much trouble for them. Having none of this, his mother and father massaged his legs daily, and encouraged and taught him in every way possible. Optimistic and persevering by nature, “Beach,” as his family called him, always pushed himself to do what everyone else could do. He thrived, and proved the doctor wrong.
Like other children of his day, Beach walked to school, and these twice-daily walks along quiet roads and trails instilled a life-long love of nature. When he was a little older, he would often go duck hunting early in the morning, or check his trap lines before hurrying to get to school on time. He was an excellent student, and showed great interest in learning. He always loved books, and was a voracious reader. The keen curiosity he had, particularly about nature and exploration, followed him throughout his life.
His parents provided a wealth of opportunities for him. Among other things, he and his father built a crystal radio set together. In addition to household chores, Beach held jobs such as setting up duckpins in Betterton’s bowling alley.
Beach had one brother, Jimmy, who was 10 years younger than he was.
When he was 12 years old, Beach read about the Boy Scouts, a movement that was then fairly new in the United States. He wanted to be a Boy Scout, and thought that Betterton should have a Boy Scout troop. So he talked to his friends and their fathers, and soon Troop 1 of Betterton, Md. was formed. Troop 1 was always busy with one project or another, and attended Camp Rodney in Delaware for summer camp. Beach played the bass drum in the Troop’s marching band, and his love of learning and achievement led him to earn 39 merit badges. In addition to loving the outdoor activities and learning all kinds of skills and camp craft, he enjoyed the camaraderie of friends that comes with Scouting. He always loved a good story or a bit of teasing, but only if it was good-natured. He had a saying, “If it’s not fun for all, it’s not fun.”
He was a counselor for many summers at Camp Rodney, and at age 19 he became Scoutmaster of his Troop. Howard Owens remained active in the Boy Scouts for the rest of his life, and in 1950 was honored with a Silver Beaver award, the highest award that can be bestowed on a Scout leader.
Howard Owens earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. in 1931. He received his Master’s Degree from the University of Maryland, in entomology, in 1944. He received his PhD in entomology from the University of Maryland in 1963.
After graduating from college, Howard Owens wanted to teach, but at that time in the State of Maryland, people who had ever had polio were banned from teaching in public schools. In 1933 he was hired to teach nature and woodcraft at McDonogh School for Boys, a private school in Reisterstown, Md. that also ran a summer camp. Mr. Owens also taught elementary science there, working at McDonogh School from 1933-1942. During this time, he realized that he had found his life long vocation.
Prince George’s was the first county in Maryland to drop the ban on teachers who had ever had polio. In 1945, Howard Owens started teaching biology there, first at Hyattsville High School, and from 1951-56 at Northwestern High School. He took his students on all sorts of field trips, and many of them excelled at national science fairs. In 1956, he was voted the most outstanding high school biology teacher in America by the Armed Forces Chemical Association and the National Science Teachers Association.
In 1956 Howard Owens accepted the position of Supervisor of Secondary Science Education in Prince George’s County. Amongst a myriad of other tasks, he carefully drew plans for science classrooms and laboratories during a period when the county was growing quickly. He was known for being a great organizer who not only knew how to delegate tasks, check on their progress, and get things done, but also for being someone who inspired people. He was an excellent speaker and storyteller, and had a wonderful sense of humor.
Always believing that students learn as much outdoors as they do in the classroom, Dr. Owens taught stalking skills for many years to students on field trips. While he knew they might never use them in hunting wild game, as he had, he felt that it would sharpen their mental skills if they became more keenly observant of their surroundings.
After they were both hired to teach nature and woodcraft at McDonogh School, Beach Owens and his good friend Allen Bonwill wanted to improve their knowledge and skills in these fields. Having spent some time in Canada the previous year, they returned to Canada in the late summer of 1933 with their friend Galen “Deep River” Clark. They felt that Native Americans lived closer to nature than most people, and knew that the Cree Indians still lived off the land, using skills that had been passed down for ages. They planned to make their way by car and by canoe to James Bay, where they could learn from the Cree. Their expedition took place during the Great Depression, and they had to make do with meager supplies. As things turned out, they had an adventure that nearly ended in disaster.
Because of unforeseen circumstances and a shortage of money, only Beach Owens was able, by train, to complete the trip to James Bay, where he met some Cree Indians and learned as much as he could. After spending several days on Moose Factory Island, at the southern tip of James Bay, he returned to his friends, and the three of them set up camp on some high ground in the muskeg. Their plan was to kill a moose so they would have enough meat to get through the cold Canadian winter, and to practice the skills they had learned from the Cree and other local people to make good use of all the other parts of the moose.
While on a hunting trip, Al shot at a moose, and he and Beach thought that it might have been wounded. They devised a plan to find it, if that was the case, in which they would split up. Beach hiked into the muskeg according to their plan, steering his course by lining up trees. When he unexpectedly ran across a deer, he tried to get it to run toward Al, who had the party’s only rifle. In doing so, he lost his bearings. Every method he had ever learned of finding the polar directions eluded him, because of the heavily overcast skies and the reflective light of all the sugar maple trees in their bright yellow Fall colors. He proceeded in the wrong direction.
Muskeg is a marshy environment with a thick, spongy type of soil that is filled with permanently waterlogged vegetation. Because your feet sink so deeply into it, it is extremely tiring to walk through. The area Mr. Owens was in also had fallen, moss-covered logs almost waist-high every few feet and numerous beaver ponds, compounding the difficulty of passage.
After a long and miserable night, he was able at dawn to discern which direction was North, and made his way toward the river. The men had wisely planned ahead what each one would do if one of them became lost, and staying calm was an important part of their plan. When he finally came to the river, acres of drowned land, flooded trees, and deep silt muck put an end to his plan to make a raft and float down the river. Already thoroughly chilled and exhausted, he continued his arduous journey along the flooded river, in cold weather with both rain and snow falling.
After being lost in the muskeg for three days, and thinking that he was about at the end of his strength, he heard someone singing. Far out in the river, a trapper was canoeing upstream. Though he barely had enough energy left to do it, Beach yelled, and the trapper heard him. He wound his canoe in and out through the trees as Beach made his way out into the river. Later that day, he was returned to his friends.
This was a defining event in Mr. Owens’s life, and he realized how planning ahead, perseverance, and keeping a cool head saved his life. He relied on skills he had learned in the Boy Scouts, and on knowledge he had learned in college psychology class about how a person’s mind can react under extreme stress.
In 1937 Howard Owens married Anna Belle Groves, who was also from Kent County. She later earned her B.S. and M.S. in Botany from the University of Maryland, and taught Botany Labs there for many years. She also led nature hikes for the National Capital Park System, and was a Girl Scout leader. Beach and Anna Belle shared a love of learning, especially as it pertained to nature and the great outdoors. They planned ahead so they could support each other while they completed their education. Beach and Anna Belle had two daughters, Diane and Meriel, and they continued their rich educational activities with them.
Howard Owens kept busy all the time. The Owens family went on many outings to museums and Audubon lectures, and on sightseeing, camping, and fishing trips. They had a fruit and vegetable garden in their back yard, where Mr. Owens used his carpentry skills to build fences, a shed, trellises, and birdhouses.
He had a large insect collection, and later in life he collected duck decoys. He was very interested in photography, and took his camera with him almost everywhere. In addition to photographing nature, his family, students with their science fair projects, and scenes from vacations, he often photographed Canada geese, on fields or waterways during their migration.
He loved fishing, and often took his family or friends out on the Chesapeake Bay on an old fishing boat, the Humdinger, which he owned with a couple of friends. At other times, he took one of his daughters to some quiet, little pond to fish. And when he could, he returned to Lake Opinicon in Ontario, Canada, where his old friend Al Bonwill had built a family campground.
In 1939 at the New York World’s Fair, Mr. Owens saw student science fair exhibits. Feeling that the learning value of these projects was tremendous, he vowed to himself to someday have his own students do similar projects. He organized the first science fair in the County at Hyattsville High School in 1948. In 1949 he started the first Prince George’s County Science Fair, and was Director of these area fairs for the rest of his life. He was dedicated to helping students discover the passion of scientific exploration.
Dr. Owens attended as many science fairs as possible all around Prince George’s, Charles, St. Mary’s, and Calvert Counties. He always spoke to as many students as he could, listening to them explain their projects, and giving them a few “pointers.” People say that he made them feel like they could accomplish anything.
Over the years, Dr. Owens developed a vision of a place where students could come and learn about science through hands-on activities. He felt that the curiosity about the world around us was present in every student, and with the right opportunities, that curiosity could grow and power the determination to find answers.
Howard Owens died in 1971, at the age of 61. His dream of a science center became a reality in 1979, and his colleagues honored him by naming it the Howard B. Owens Science Center.