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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Old Dominion University’s Newest Residence Hall Honors Legacy of Civil Rights Icon

By Harry Minium

Old Dominion University on Thursday dedicated its newest residence hall, a building that pays tribute to a historic civil rights figure, and officials say is among the most modern in the nation.

Hugo A. Owens House, a $62.5 million, 470-bed residence hall that opened this spring, is named for Dr. Hugo A. Owens, a prominent local dentist who was ODU's first African American rector.

Gov. Ralph Northam participated in the ribbon cutting and paid tribute to Owens' history of fighting for equal rights. He reminded attendees, who included officials, students and Owens' relatives, of the time in the 1960s when Owens sued to gain equal access to Portsmouth parks.

He did so after he and his daughter were told to leave because they were Black.

"Can you believe that not that long ago that man was told he could not be in one of our parks?" Gov. Northam said.

"Dr. Owens was a trailblazer and a civil rights hero. We know that racism and discrimination of the Jim Crow era did not change because white people realized it was unfair. It changed because people like Dr. Owens were brave enough to stand up and say, 'This not right.'

"As hard as civil rights leaders like Dr. Owens worked, we know that racism and discrimination still exist in our system.

"I hope the students living here will learn all about Dr. Owens and understand his role in helping make the world a better place for them just as they will have the opportunity to do for our next generation."

Dr. Owens' history of fighting for racial justice, particularly equal access to education and health care, is documented on the first floor on a namesake wall, which includes photos and quotes. His three children, Paula Owens Parker, Patrice Owens Parker and Hugo Owens Jr., participated in creating the tribute.

President John R. Broderick said it was appropriate to name ODU's most modern residence hall for Owens.

"He embraced courage in his fight for civil rights," President Broderick said, "and I hope his legacy inspires future generations at Old Dominion to follow his path."

Former ODU President James V. Koch, who has called Owens "the Nelson Mandela of Hampton Roads," said like Mandela, "he became known for disarming even hostile groups by saying a very friendly hello to them in eight or 10 different languages.

"But he was ready to take slings and arrows, threats and indignities, and did so often during his career."

When Owens was rector, he surprised potential critics "who were anticipating a firebrand," Koch added. "Hugo had lots of fire within him, but he knew when and where to use it."

The 165,000-square-foot Owens House is the second-largest residence hall at ODU.

Many students living there major in STEM-H - science, technology, engineering, math and health sciences.

Owens House reflects the partnership between Housing & Residence Life and Academic Affairs to support the academic experience of residential students. It contains living-learning communities focusing on cybersecurity, gaming, health professions and engineering that allow students to take classes, go to study hall or collaborate on projects, all without leaving the building.

Much of the student interaction takes place on the second floor. It features academically focused resources, including two classrooms, study rooms, a learning commons and a computer room with 22 terminals open to all residential students 24 hours a day. It also has an Innovation Lab, complete with computer terminals and 3-D printers.

The Innovation Lab is designed as a collaboration area for students in all majors to encourage creativity and test new ideas. The lab supports the entrepreneurial spirit of ODU and encourages students to participate in other spaces, such as the Strome Entrepreneurial Center and the Engineering Makerspace & Invention Center in the Batten College of Engineering and Technology.

Owens' oldest daughter, Paula Owens Parker, said her father's dentist office was "an incubator for dreams, not only for him, but for everyone who worked for him and his patients.

"None of his staff was expected to stay. He opened doors and introduced them to people that would help them realize their goals.

"Thanks to President Broderick," Parker said, "Owens House will continue that legacy of being an incubator for dreams. We applaud his vision and tireless work to secure the funding and support to build this magnificent facility."

President Broderick said: "If students can dream it, they can create it in the Owens House. Dr. Owens was passionate about lifelong learning and collaboration, and he brought that energy to Old Dominion.

"Hugo Owens House was designed not only to celebrate his legacy, but to inspire our students. My hope is that they will carry forward his spirit and make their own contributions to improve the world they live in.

"Old Dominion is a better place because of the contributions of Hugo Owens."

The building was designed as a comfortable, open facility. Each floor has community spaces to encourage students to interact, whether to collaborate on projects, study together, cook in the community kitchens or just relax and watch TV.

Owens House was designed by VMDO Architects and ODU's architects in collaboration with faculty and administrators, but students also had significant input. They selected the interior furniture, all custom-made, for the building's public sections.

The front of Owens House, on 49th Street near Powhatan Avenue, appears as three sections, with giant atriums fronting all three. Windows are located just about everywhere, and the building drinks in natural light.

The middle section has four stories of clear glass, with hallways that link the two five-story towers. The upper levels of the building offer panoramic views of the campus and nearby Larchmont neighborhood.

A patio behind Owens House has permanent outdoor furniture, including a ping pong table, as well as a circular, glassed-in indoor commons area.

"It's a beautiful building, and everything in Owens House was selected to support our students' success," said Don Stansberry, vice president of student engagement and enrollment services.

One of the most striking features of the residence hall is the furniture in the rooms. It is comfortable yet collapsible and allows students to configure beds and desks in any manner they desire. Beds can be raised or lowered, and study desks can also be adjusted to seated or standing height.

The facility is ideal for STEM and entrepreneurial students and is close to Broderick Dining Commons, the Student Recreation Center, Webb University Center, the Strome Entrepreneurial Center and most of the University's science buildings, including the new Chemistry Building.

Dr. Owens is memorialized on all five floors.

"We didn't want it to have a museum feel because it's an active space where students will be living and learning, but we wanted the residents to experience the impact Dr. Owens made as a leader," Stansberry said.

"The building is designed to be active and collaborative, which was one of the goals we set when we were putting the pieces together."

He credited ODU's staff for creating a tribute both meaningful and attractive.

Associate Dean of Students Bridget Weikel said every quote was chosen to speak to students.

"The words educator, mentor, leader, activist, lifelong learner and innovator - they all resonate with ODU and the values of our institution and capture the amazing character of Dr. Owens," she said.

"So we took those words and identified quotes from the family or from Dr. Owens himself or from others in the community that help to tie him to those traits and actions he took.

"In each of the upper floors and in community spaces, we identified an additional quote that ties into one of those words as well. We're so excited about being able to showcase his contributions and have his legacy continue to impact our students."

During the ceremony, Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, credited Owens for mentoring him and thanked ODU for honoring his legacy.

"It's important that our young people understand who our leaders were and the impact they made," Hayes said. "President Broderick, thank you for naming such a magnificent project after Dr. Owens."

ODU's student body is far more diverse now than it was when Owens was rector, from 1990 to 1994. Old Dominion also ranks among the top universities in the nation in African American graduation rates.

"Dr. Owens," Koch said, "I think would be very pleased with Old Dominion University today."

Paula Owens Parker said he would.

"If dad were here, he would be in Owens House on moving day to meet the students and encourage them to have the best year they could have," she said.

"He would have flowers in the reception desk to show appreciation for the staff.

"He would be back in the spring to wish the students a good summer.

"If he were here, he would be thrilled and amazed. He would stand up with his hands on his hips and turn to my mother and say, 'Helen, can you believe this?'

"And she would just smile."

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