BATAVIA — It was a sad evening on Thursday for Batavia City School District Superintendent Jason Smith when he informed the district community of the passing of James R. Owen.
Owen, better known as “the Mayor of Redfield Parkway” died recently of cancer.
“It is with great sadness that I pass along the news that our beloved colleague, Jim Owen, has passed away after his courageous battle with cancer,” Smith wrote. “Jim was an extraordinary educator who, in 2003, after his retirement from the Hamburg Central School District, became an admired, respected, and favorite substitute teacher in our district—adored by students and staff alike.”
Owen, son of Frank and Natalie Walker Owen, graduated from Batavia High School in 1961 before attending Morrisville Institute of Technology and, later, Rochester Institute of Technology. He taught in Sackets Harbor and later in the Hamburg Central School District, where he coached cross country for about 35 years.
Owen made Redfield Parkway part of his life for nearly eight decades. He grew up at 2 Redfield Parkway with his brother and sister, Robert and Kathy. His father, Frank Owen, started the Batavia High School Band in 1930.
“Jim’s infectious energy, unparalleled passion for Batavia and its history, genuine kindness, and unmistakable sense of humor truly made him one-of-a-kind and why he will be so sorely missed in our schools, classrooms, and hallways.
On Aug. 25, Batavia High School dedicated its auditorium to the memory of Frank Owen.
“In his final few months, it was heartening to see the immense joy and pride he felt as we dedicated our BHS auditorium to his late father, Frank, and when we unveiled the historic restored bells of BMS—all thanks to his tireless efforts and unwavering commitment,” Smith wrote.
“On a personal note, Jim has been wonderfully supportive of me since my college days as a lifeguard when I worked for him at Horseshoe Lake,” the superintendent said. “As he did with everyone he met, he always saw the best in me and was quick to offer an encouraging word and pat on the back, and probably a little history lesson on Batavia, too.”
Batavia City Council Councilmember-At-Large Bob Bialkowski said he knew Jim Owen forever.
“I went to high school with his sister, Kathy. Their father was the music teacher. Jim used to stop by occasionally,” Bialkowski said.
Bialkowski said he hadn’t spoken to Owen in a month and a half or two months, but kept in contact with him on Facebook.
“He did Facebook postings every day when he was at Crossroads (House, Inc.) and I would respond,” Bialkowski said.
The councilperson-at-large said he and Owen spoke about local politics and local places such as the Holland Land Office Museum and Redfield Parkway.
“I used to speak with Jim on a number of issues. Sometimes I would run to Tops to get something and I would run into Jim there,” he said.
Bialkowski described Owen as a mild-mannered, very polite person and a joy to talk to. He remembered that when City Council was discussing the Redfield Parkway pillars restoration issue a few years ago, Jim and Kathy Owen would get in touch with him to ask what the city was going to do.
“I’ve been to their home several times — great people,” Bialkowski said.
Smith thanked those who have kept in touch with Owen during his battle with cancer.
We know it meant the world to him to have our entire community behind him,” he said. “Knowing Jim meant so much to so many of us, we will be offering counseling services for anyone who needs it.”
Smith suggested that as district staff take a moment to reflect on Owen’s passing, they remind themselves of the awesome power educators have to touch people’s lives, transform a community, and genuinely make people smile.
“And in 2023, let’s all resolve to see the best in each other and in our students, offer encouraging words to those who cross our paths, and be passionately invested in our community,” he said. “In other words, let’s all be a little more like Jim.”
School District Clerk Brittany Witkop remembers getting to know Owen by chance, seeing him in the hallways at Batavia or stopping to talk to him for a few minutes about history.
“He truly loved being part of our school system and enjoyed the students. He always said that as a substitute, he did his best to keep the class aligned while the teacher was out and to be a role model to the kids as well as listening and learning from them,” she said. “He often said the kids taught him a lot about technology and I could tell he appreciated that because he loved to learn.”
Witkop said she admired his sense of humor toward his parents, which is something we don’t always see.
“Over the years, I got to see Mr. Owen more often and we would talk whenever he came to sub at the high school,” she said. “I enjoyed my time with him and learned a lot. When you got to know Mr. Owen, you cold tell he was a hard worker and genuine person.
“When he became sick last year and was not able to visit as much, there was an emptiness and I think many others felt that way too. All of us had become accustomed to his presence,” Witkop said.
Owen changed many lives for the better and Witkop said she and many others will truly miss him.
“I feel lucky to have had him in my life. Thank you to everyone who surrounded him throughout his life and in his final days,” she said. “He was loved by more people than I think he could have ever imagined. Rest in peace, my friend.”
County Manager Matt Landers said Friday that he was saddened by the news of Owen’s death.
“Jim was a well-respected figure in the community that cared a lot about Batavia,” Landers said. “I’ve known Jim over 15 years. While Jim loved Batavia, he was someone that always believed we could do better as a community and was positive in our ability to accomplish more.”
Owen was famous for randomly showing up at a variety of different community events, Landers remembers.
“I have run the Kiwanis Easter Egg Hunt the past decade or so and can remember Jim showing up on a recent rainy Easter Egg Hunt day to see all of the smiling kids and to interact with the community, he said. “He loved to be a part of family-oriented events like the Easter Egg Hunt.”