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What's Up Magazine

Janet Owens

Mar 17, 2011 03:00AM ● By Anonymous

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“The church lost their organist so I volunteered,” she chuckles. “I knew piano, but I didn’t know anything about playing the organ. So I learned the hard way. There was lots of screeching. But the congregation was very supportive.” The support of the congregation kept her playing the organ for services for four years, not only at St. James but also at the smaller St. Marks, in Deale.

Owens was sent to boarding school, the former Hannah Moore Academy in Reisterstown, Maryland, and then she attended George Washington University, where she majored in sociology, with a minor in Russian. “It was the 1960s and I was a product of the John F. Kennedy era,” she explains. “My first job was with the American Red Cross, which at that time was very involved with education. We were particularly involved with programs to improve the inner city schools and to train kids. My work with low-income communities brought home to me the simple knowledge that if you don’t have a job you have nothing. Communities suffer and people die just because they are poor. That’s why economic development is so important to me,” she says.

Owens’s next job was with the Community Action Agency in New Hampshire. “The position introduced me to the seriously mentally ill,” Owens says. “And my work led me to the University of New Hampshire Mental Health Clinic. I realized that in order to get more accomplished, I needed more academic training. So I went to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with the intention of studying administration, clinical psychology, or education. Owens quickly learned she needed to make a choice: “My advisor asked, ‘Do you want to change one person at a time or organizations?’ My response was, ‘Both are important.’” In the end, Owens favored a path toward administration and management, where she would be in a position to help more people.

While working toward her master’s degree there, Owens met her future husband, attorney David Sheehan. After marrying they pursued their respective careers while raising sons Christopher and Brendan. Owens followed her passion for public service, accepting a position as assistant secretary for criminal justice. Her duties included running the Massachusetts prison system. “I held the highest ranking job of a woman in the entire state,” she says. “I loved the job, but some days it did get a little scary.”

A series of health scares in the early 1980s included an ectopic pregnancy, Brendan rupturing his appendix, and Chris having a severe allergic reaction to bees. These contributed to Owens’s decision to encourage a move back to Maryland, when her husband was offered a position working with then-Attorney General of Maryland Stephen H. Sachs. “I always knew I wanted to come back to Anne Arundel County,” she explains. “It was just a question of when.”

Initially, Owens took a position working for the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville. But she found the task of balancing family time and the long commute daunting. Offered the position of director of the Anne Arundel County Housing Authority and, subsequently, director of the Department of Aging by then–County Executive O. James Lighthizer, Owens welcomed the chance to work on public policy and with low-income communities, using the skills she had developed through her previous work and education.

Her passion to champion the cause of the vulnerable gave her the fervor to run for a seat on the Orphan’s Court, which administers wills in probate and guardianships. She won the seat and served from 1990 to 1994. She also served on the boards of directors of Providence Center and Fairfield Nursing Home and as an officer and trustee of Harbor Hospital. She says, “I started to become concerned as I saw the school system deteriorating and became embarrassed by how the county looked, so I decided to run for county executive.”

During her first term, among her top priorities were building a relationship with the board of education, funding education, preserving farmland, and updating county technology. Next came the decision to build two libraries—Odenton and Crofton. Among her many projects as she worked to extend the county’s tax base was the completion of Arundel Mills, “An enormous undertaking where every department from zoning, planning, and transportation was involved,” along with the Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole project, which opened to the public this past fall. “I was always trying to balance a big jigsaw puzzle, looking after the needs of North County and developing the potential of West County, which is really a gold coast with all the defense contractors,” she explains. The decision to run for a second term was not an easy one, “But it takes so long to get a project done,” she says.

Owens is one of the few county executives of Anne Arundel County in recent history that has served two sequential terms. Having lost a bid for the job of state comptroller in 2006, she is currently chair of the University of Maryland at Baltimore Foundation. Is there another political contest in her future? Currently, having the time to prepare gourmet meals for family and friends, and taking the time to be with people she enjoys, are making it tempting to watch from the sidelines.