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1100 Avon Drive
Springfield, IL 62704
217/787-3173
 
An Owen Marsh Political Speech by Bob Marsh

I only remember one political speech that my father made. It was at U.S. Grant Junior High and sponsored by the PTA. There were thirteen names on the ballot and three slots to be filled. I believe that all of the candidates showed up for the event. Of course, everyone wanted to be either first or last on the program, as it obviously was going to be a long one. Owen Marsh, however, asked the moderator if he could have a position in the middle, about half way through. Though puzzled, they gave him the middle slot.

By the time his turn came up, everyone was getting a bit restless. Each candidate had been allowed fifteen minutes. Owen Marsh started out with "If you are like me, you are a little tired of sitting; so why don't we all stand up and stretch a minute." Of course everyone stood up and some chattering started. After about a half minute, his YMCA and Boy Scout background kicked in. Raising his hands high over his head, he announced, "All right, everybody stretch!" With some good-natured laughter, most people followed suit. By now a couple of minutes had passed. Then Owen said, "Before we all sit down, be sure to introduce yourself to your neighbor." Another minute or so of conversation followed and everyone sat down. He had ten minutes left. Then he delivered his speech.

"I'm Owen Marsh and I have served three terms on the school board. In that time I have voted on practically every issue to be discussed tonight. If the issue matters to you, you already know how I voted! [laughter] If you agree with my judgment most of the time, I ask for your vote. I yield the balance of my time."

I couldn't help feeling sorry for the candidate who was up next.

A Memoir of Owen Rainey Marsh

Owen Rainey Marsh was born March 27, 1908 the son of Ollie Marsh and Daisy Mae Rainey Marsh in DeWitt County Illinois. Ollie was descended from the Marsh-Bosserman family that included original settlers of Nixon Township in the 1840's and still farm in that area. Ollie eventually switched from farming to industry and moved his family, including Owen's two sisters Leta and Dorothy Dean, to Normal. All three children attended Illinois State University, where Owen was co-editor of the Index yearbook with Dorothea Nell Frutiger whom he married on July 17, 1931.

In 1931 Owen Marsh began working for Pontiac Engraving as a yearbook salesman. Shortly, he accepted a position with Capitol Engraving in Springfield, and continued with that company, rising to the position of Vice President of Sales. When the owner of Capitol encountered difficulties, Owen Marsh at about fifty years of age formed Associates Engraving, a company that still exists under another name in Springfield. In these business endeavors Owen Marsh achieved a reputation of fair dealing and reliability. As a school board member, he refrained from his company bidding on any District 186 contracts, although one year Capitol did the engraving work for Lamphier's yearbook when no suitable bid could be obtained.

Soon after arriving in Springfield, Owen Marsh became active in civic affairs. A reform group nominated him for mayor, but he lost the election. The group's next candidate won and served a total of six terms, while Owen ran for the school board. It was a long involvement in public education, but it was not the only civic service Owen Marsh was involved in.

From his first days in Springfield, Owen Marsh had been involved with the YMCA. As an outgrowth of this, he became very active in Scouting. Eventually he would serve as president of the Abraham Lincoln Council, BSA and be a recipient of the Silver Beaver Award. During this period he helped grow the Lincoln Pilgrimage into the largest annual Scouting event in the country. Both of his sons were active in Boy Scouts and the older, Robert Marsh is an Eagle Scout.

Also beginning in the early days in Springfield was an involvement in civil rights. Owen Marsh became involved in the Urban League, and served a term as president of the Springfield chapter in 1963-4. In this capacity he was invited to the White House Conference on Civil Rights in 1963 and derived substantial mirth at the detailed information provided to assure that he could get "appropriate" housing for the conference. It would be another two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1965 made discrimination in hotel accommodations illegal, and in 1963 our nation's capital was a segregated city.

On a personal note, I spent my sixteenth birthday at the annual Urban League dinner when my father ended his term as president and turned the gavel over to Dr. Edwin Lee. In the election after Owen Marsh's death, Dr. Lee ran for the school board seat my father had left open and became the first black school board member in current history. The realm of civil rights and school administration sometimes overlapped. When a tornado destroyed a part of an elementary school, the architects' report suggested simply demolishing the damaged part and reassigning some of students in adjacent schools with excess classroom capacity. In a closed session, Owen Marsh pointed out that the school involved was about 50% minority, and that the proposed plan would transfer most of the school's white students to mostly white schools and leave the original school about 80% minority. The board decided unanimously to rebuild the school. Shortly after Brown vs. Board of Education and long before the national debate on school desegregation, District 186 was promoting a policy of diversity and quality education for all children.

There were many other issues Owen Marsh championed in the field of education. After a terrible fire at a Chicago Catholic school, he spent months on the committee that updated school fire safety standards, insisting that release bars on school doors be low enough for small children to operate. He was instrumental in instituting hot lunches in all elementary schools in the district and was a supported of the districts school nurse program and dental clinic. He firmly believed that sick or hungry children would have difficulty learning. Intramural athletics and physical education classes had his strong support, as did art and music programs at all levels.

Owen Marsh died the morning of December 29, 1964 in the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. In his capacity as president of the Illinois School Board Association, he was attending the annual meeting of the Illinois Association of Educators. He his buried with his wife in Oak Ridge Cemetery on a knoll overlooking Lincoln's Tomb.

Nearly fifty years after his death, there are few individuals left in Springfield who have personal memories of Owen Marsh. His accomplishments were substantial, but do not explain why his peers wanted to name a school after him. People are often remembered not only for what they accomplish, but for how they treat other people. This was the base of Owen Marsh's reputation.

In all dealings he was respected as fair and honest. He was active in Douglas Avenue Methodist Church, switching between chairing the budget committee and pastoral relations committee. After his death I was astonished at how many people made the same basic comments about him; that he was accessible and listened respectfully to everyone. I had remembered the frequent evening phone calls, the trips to the school board office, and the occasional parent or citizen who came by our house. I knew it consumed time, and I knew that Owen Marsh faced an often difficult life with good humor. I have a hard time recalling any time I saw him angry. Only when I was older did I come to find how rare these qualities are leaders. He was patient in listening, fair in deciding, slow and brief to speak, and genuinely liked people.

What then, is the special legacy of Owen Marsh Elementary? I would say that the school should have a special commitment to providing a broad and effective education to every child, to promote understanding and compassion for all people, and to nurture not only skills, but also the values that make a life well lived.