The cheapest man in Batavia has died – and we are both richer and poorer for it.
I met Jim in the summer of 1969, when I was nine and he was in his mid-twenties. As supervisor of MacArthur Park, he installed me as shortstop on the park’s baseball team for nine- to thirteen-year-olds. This was a stupendously bad move, given that I was the youngest player on a jock-heavy team, and shortstop is the most crucial position in the field. It took him a few games to recognize his mistake, but ever after, till his death in early 2023 at age seventy-nine, Jim greeted me as “my second baseman!” (He tended to confuse such minor matters as infield positions.) Jim taught typing and coached cross country at a school fifty miles distant, but he maintained ties to his hometown, and in retirement returned to live in the house in which he grew up. Over the last twenty years of his life our paths crossed countless times.
Stories of Jim’s penny pinching – the word does not do his preternatural frugality justice – are legion. They would be written off as apocryphal, but for the many, often incredulous, witnesses. There was the time Jim, a confirmed bachelor then in middle age, had a date. He took her to a chain restaurant. Jim let her know that they were going Dutch. Fine, she said. At meal’s end the waitress came with the bill. Jim’s date threw in half the total; Jim pulled out a “Buy One, Get One Free” coupon. There was no second date.
Or there was the time Jim and Wayne, a local radio personality and voice of our Muckdogs minor-league baseball team, took the bus to New York City, four hundred miles to our east. Batavia invades Gotham! The two thriftiest bachelors in town alighted at the Port Authority and proceeded to paint the town accountant-eyeshade green. At some point, Jim and Wayne wandered over to Times Square. A Superman impersonator accosted them. The ersatz Man of Steel posed with Jim as Wayne snapped a photo. Superman stuck out his palm for the expected gratuity. Jim uncorked his usual line: “My name is crime, and crime don’t pay.” Superman was not amused. “Jim, you have to tip him,” advised Wayne. Jim wouldn’t. So Wayne reached into his pocket and handed Superman his wage: a quarter. And the two Batavians went on their way, leaving a sputtering superhero in their wake.
Those were high watermarks, but every day and in every way Jim practiced a cheapness that surely merited entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He routinely swiped all the jams and jellies from tables in restaurants, where he never left tips. (Or picked up checks.) He hoarded the little shampoos and soap bars and razors from the locker room of his country club, which changed its free toiletries policy in response. In his daily phone calls to my father, Jim would exult over having found a nickel in the supermarket parking lot.
Despite his ostensible retirement, Jim substitute-taught several days a week in our city schools. He’d bring pens and pencils he had picked up gratis at local businesses and charge students a quarter to borrow a writing utensil. He’d return the quarter if they returned the stylus – but he preferred that they did not, for that gave him license to keep the quarter. The stories go on and on, and they sound like tall tales, exaggerations for comic effect, but they are not. Jim fully earned his “cheapest man in town” sobriquet.
And yet.… Upon Jim’s death, dozens of students from his sub-teaching days left messages on Internet sites, and some were quite moving. I was particularly struck by this memory of a high school girl:
Besides finding out there was a snow day, there was nothing else that quite compared to the joy that was felt when you walked into your classroom to find out Mr. James R. Owen was your substitute for the day.
On my first day of ninth-grade which was technically the second day of school but I was too anxious to go the first day – I had a panic attack, managed to get lost during it, and wound up on the back of the auditorium stage. And there I was sitting in a puddle of my tears, panicked and alone, when I heard the unmistakable voice of Mr. Owen as he asked if I would like a Kleenex. And instead of a Kleenex, he handed me a handkerchief he pulled out of his pocket, which only made me cry harder, because my dad always carried one. So there we sat together on the stage, behind the curtain, not talking, as I cried into his hankie. Eventually, I stopped crying.
But we still just sat together. Maybe a half hour later, Mr. Owen told me a phrase that was also in a sympathy card I had received two weeks prior, when my dad died: “The pain you feel is immeasurable, but so is the love he had for you.” He squeezed my hand three times and asked if I was ready to continue my day. He walked me to my English class and told my teacher he needed my help and that’s why I had missed all but five minutes of our class.
I had known Jim almost all my life and I didn’t know he had that in him.
Jim’s classes were free-for-alls – he was no more capable of imposing discipline upon unruly teens than he was of handing a $20 bill to a street beggar – but no matter the course he was putatively teaching, he drilled his charges in local history. I doubt if any kid has graduated Batavia High over the last two decades without knowing the name of Batavia’s founder (Joseph Ellicott), first mayor (Harvey Burkhart), and legendary high-school football coach (Danny Van Detta). He liked to boast of his most famous student, from years ago and miles away: Kathy Hochul, a one-term congresswoman and lieutenant governor of New York who was elevated (or is it demoted?) to the governorship upon the resignation of the disgraced Andrew Cuomo.
In the fortnight interregnum between Cuomo’s resignation announcement and Hochul’s assumption of office, Jim was present at the opening of a time capsule at his country club. Buried in 1996 – not exactly the ancient days of King Arthur or even Chester Alan Arthur – its contents included a photo of several country club members. Among them was Jim, who was wearing the same shirt in the 1996 photo as he was at the capsule’s opening. As the boys were ribbing him, Jim’s phone rang. He brightened to hear the voice at the other end. “It’s Kathy Hochul,” he announced to the crowd. Sure, Jim. As if the incoming governor, in the midst of navigating the storm before the calm, would phone … you.
To quiet the doubters, Jim put La Hochul on speakerphone – and sure enough, ‘twas her. The new and largely unknown governor was the subject of quickie biographical stories in the Gotham press. Jim happily supplied approbatory quotes to the New York Daily News about his old student, praising the superlative typing skills she had demonstrated as a teenager. Folks chided this tightwad Republican for shilling on behalf of a conventional liberal Democrat, but Jim understood that friendship must always trump politics.
In mid-2022, Jim was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. As is surely typical in such cases, he couldn’t quite believe it was happening to him. His physical decline was gradual, then precipitous. One week he was tooling around town, attending any public reception offering free food, and the next he was in the hospital, gravely ill. Jim hadn’t been abed for more than a week before a hundred or so high-school students crammed into the hospital’s lobby and serenaded him with Christmas carols. Frail as he was, Jim, eyes clouded and voice whispery, sat in his wheelchair and fist-bumped the kids as they passed by.
By Christmas Day he was in Crossroads House, the local hospice. A doula said that no resident had ever had so many visitors. Former students poured in as if streaming from a firehose. Jim’s room contained an enormous poster board on which dozens and dozens of high schoolers had written messages of love and mercy and pleas “not to leave us yet.”
One of my visits could have been a scene in some gentle comedy. His naked body curled under a blanket, Jim struggled to speak. “Billy,” he rasped, “when it’s near the end, you realize something.” I leaned my ear closer. What do you realize at the end? Jim fell asleep. I never did learn this secret. Perhaps it is only vouchsafed to those on the verge.
Jim hoarded the little shampoos and soap bars and razors from the locker room of his country club, which changed its free toiletries policy in response.
I last visited Jim a day or two before his death. He was barely conscious, though the folks at Crossroads assured me he could hear. A volunteer told me that “he needs permission to die.” I guess she meant that because Jim had no family left and spoke of his religious faith only in the vaguest terms, he needed his friends to urge him on. I didn’t say anything quite so straightforward as that, but I did recall to him our old baseball team, reeling off as many names as I could remember. I told him that he was a great Batavia character whom we would never forget. He was able to move his hand slightly, which I took as a sign he was hearing me. Then I whispered to Jim that I’d see him on the other side, and I left.
In his final weeks and after his death, the outpouring of community affection for this idiosyncratic character was astounding. A packed house celebrated the naming of the high school auditorium after Jim’s father, who founded the school band and chorus. The high school announced “be kind” activities that, because they were tied to the students’ memories of this specific, flesh and blood and all-too-human person, held meaning beyond the usual platitudes.
My decades-long prediction had been that Jim, who has no living relatives that I know of, would bequeath a small fortune to some local institution – the hospital or museum or suchlike – and half a century from now, when those who sighed or chuckled over the buy-one-get-one-free coupon and crime not paying and a freezer full of stolen jellies have departed this vale of laughter, he would be lauded as the town’s great philanthropist. His estate has now been settled. Suffice to say that there will be Owen Rooms and Owen Scholars for many years to come.
Rest in peace, Jim. I promise to put a quarter on your grave every Memorial Day.