Owens concludes long career in public safety at Auburn

Published: April 22, 2016
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As Melvin Owens closes out a nearly 35-year career at Auburn University, maybe people will stop asking him why he devoted his life to public safety.

Growing up in Lafayette, Alabama – what he jokingly calls "LA" or "the large metropolis just 25 miles north of here" – Owens said he didn't have lofty ambitions. He earned an academic scholarship to an in-state university, but opted not to go.

During his second year at Southern Union State Community College, Owens volunteered for the U.S. Army. He said he felt he needed structure only the military could provide. Owens completed basic training at Alabama's Fort McClellan and finished his three-year Army career at Georgia's Fort Benning.

Owens said he wasn't meant to spend a lifetime in the military, but serving as a military police officer gave him an inclination to consider a job in law enforcement.

In 1981, he joined the police force at Auburn University as a patrolman on the night shift. Through the years, Owens earned a series of promotions and found a career in public safety at Auburn. In 2007, he achieved the role of executive director of the Department of Public Safety and Security. He will retire from the post at the end of April.

Chance Corbett, associate director of emergency management in the Department of Public Safety and Security, will serve as interim executive director.

Looking back on nearly 35 years, Owens admits 1981 was a lifetime ago.

"Our society has changed monumentally since then," he said. "I applaud the officers now who are going into police work, with all the uncertainty, all of the intense scrutiny. I'm not sure I would be a police officer again. Given what the world is now, I think I'd go on and be a doctor or a lawyer."

While working at Auburn, Owens earned a bachelor's degree in human resources management from Faulkner University and a master's degree in criminal justice with a concentration in public administration from the University of Alabama. He also graduated from the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Owens offered much credit to his wife of 39 years, Deborah, and their son, Brian, for their support along this journey.

One of your job responsibilities is to escort our football coaches. Do you have any stories about that experience that you can share?

"I've promised that I would take those stories to the grave," he said with a robust laugh.

What about Coach Malzahn?

"You don't worry about him. He's going to go to practice. He's going to go to whatever meetings he has. He's going to go back and work on film. He'll go eat and that's about it." 

Do you get to lend him any advice?

"Yeah, but he doesn't listen," he said with another robust laugh.

"I've had some wonderful times doing that though. My first year was with Bo Jackson. There were some other good ones too and some real characters, like Aundray Bruce. At this year's spring game, I got the chance to see a lot of the old players, renewed a lot of acquaintances. People like Gregg Carr. You look at him now and wonder how did he ever play middle linebacker?"

Owens has maintained a close friendship with Jackson.
"As a matter of fact, he texted me about retiring," Owens said.
Jackson: Congrats, you old geezer. I know your wife already got your list made out of stuff to do around the house.
Owens: I'm in charge of my house. I'm doing my own thing. Try it sometime.
Jackson: Liar. You gonna take up golf now?
Owens: Yeah I'm practicing to beat your butt.
Jackson: It's not going to happen. You have to practice 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, my friend.

"He's a character," admitted Owens.

What is your proudest moment?
"I've given thought to that and there are two or three things that come to mind but not one moment. This journey has been littered with high moments and low moments. When I think about those highs and lows, I guess I'm most proud of that in spite of difficulties I'm still here, dedicated to serving. I just resolved to stay the course. There's a passage in the Bible [2 Timothy 4: 7] that says, 'I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.' As I look at it, that's what I wanted to do. It was my choice to hold on."

Between the military and your time at Auburn, your whole life has been about serving others.
"I would agree with that. I'm a pastor [at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church] in Lafayette. I've been there over 24 years. Coincidentally, when I was called to preach, I realized I couldn't be a pastor and work the 10-12 hour shifts of a patrolman, but then I get promoted to detective and I could do both.

"My greatest joy is being able to serve, to see people who, with the right encouragement, blossom; to see people who otherwise would go without, who have listened to people who told them what they can't do and then to come along and talk about all the possibilities, all the potential. Lafayette is a very small, rural community. At church, I look at the number of people from Lafayette who had gone on to earn community college degrees, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and doctorates. Numbers of them, scores of them. I don't take any credit for that, but what we've done is try to say, especially to the younger ones, that where you start from does not determine where you end up. It's probably my greatest joy just to see people thrive when they have been written off."

Have you had any particularly wacky requests in your career?
"Back when I was on patrol, they'd call us for anything. But I don't deal with snakes. Period. I don't even deal with animals now."

What's next for you?
"More than likely, I'll continue to teach [Intro to Criminal Justice] at Southern Union. I'll certainly remain with my church. I would like to do an Alaskan cruise and I want to go up the eastern seaboard. I've been as far as Connecticut, but I want to go up to Maine and that area."

"In all honesty, some of the greatest people I've met, I met through Auburn University. I've been able to go to places I probably never would have gone: Africa, England, Scotland and Italy. I think that's what I'll take away from this job. Wonderful people show up every day to work here. And that makes a difference."