Remembering Bobby Owens, a servant of the people, for the people

Published 1:36 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2024

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Robert Valentine Owens Jr., or Bobby Owens as he was fondly known, passed away on January 9, 2024. He was a true icon of the Outer Banks. As a genuine people-person at heart, Owens made it his mission to work for the betterment of society and in doing so, left quite the impression on just about everyone he came across. As his son RV shared, Bobby never gave up. He would always fight for what he felt was right, would always show up, would always put his best foot forward and would always look at life as though he had nothing to lose. With humility and compassion at the forefront of his endeavors, Owens was a man of action and integrity. His presence alone was as strong as a tidal wave and as gentle as the sand beneath his feet.

Owens was truly one of a kind. He believed in every single person he met and was open to hearing about absolutely everything. Perhaps this is what made him such a well-respected political leader. Even before his involvement in government affairs, Owens knew he was called to serve a greater good. His early days were spent serving the nation and the United States Coast Guard. He served as a husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle. Characterized by loyalty, charisma, courage, leadership, poise and dignity, Owens would always lead with passion and empower people to the absolute best of his ability. For this impassioned leader, it was always about the journey, and savoring life one moment at a time.

Bobby served Dare County as a commissioner and chairman for just about 22 years, making him the longest serving chairman of the county Board of Commissioners. Before boldly taking on the role of mayor of Manteo, Owens had a hand in countless community projects, state and national affairs as well as his own family business matters. He was instrumental in establishing a reverse osmosis water system in Dare County, which provided adequate, clean drinking water to a rapidly growing community. He headed efforts to secure a certificate of need from the state of North Carolina so that a hospital could be established in Dare County. He prioritized funding of ballfields and recreational facilities for youth sports programs, and even brought the first Babe Ruth World Series to the county in 1996.

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A long-time mentee of Owens is Dare County commissioner Ervin Bateman, who worked for Bobby’s son long before entering the world of politics and restaurant ownership. “I went through a life-changing event at about 35 years old and approached Bobby at the time about it,” he shared. “I liked the way he carried himself. He was a tireless worker for the people; I liked that, and I started asking him a lot of questions.”

Owens did a lot of work behind the scenes. He served as the eastern Governor’s Office director and nourished relationships with powerful and influential figures, one of which being Andy Griffith himself, who stayed at the Owens residence and was happy to call Bobby a friend and contemporary. But this extroverted influential was described as being most comfortable around everyday people, or “ordinary citizens.” He loved to teach and set an example for all who supported him in his political endeavors: “The winner is always the one who runs the race.”

Bateman commented on Owens’ humility of being a public servant: “He told me, ‘Sometimes I would ride by something that I know I did, whether it was bike path or a building or a playground, and I would look at that and know that I had part of it and just smile.’” The county commissioner said half of the people on the board at the time had no idea Bobby did these things, because he didn’t take credit for them. “It’s important that a true servant is one who builds houses knowing he never ever will live in it.”

As mayor, Owens sought to preserve the rich history of Manteo while driving progress. He supported initiatives to ensure government accessibility, community safety and economic success. He strived to meet the needs of his community without subjecting it to increased property taxes. While serving on the Dare County Board of Commissioners, Bobby saw the first occupancy tax approved by the state, which propelled the Outer Banks to be recognized as a premier vacation destination. His advocacy for a well-maintained, clean town led to the introduction of the Town Common project, which granted Manteo a park with necessary parking and facilities. The town was designated a North Carolina Main Street community during Bobby’s tenure, a tribute to his promise to represent all people with dignity and respect.

Robert Valentines Owens III (RV Owens) smiled as he remembered all the things his father had taught him: “He was my buddy.” The two would have breakfast together many mornings and their bond went well beyond father-son. They were best friends. RV shared that he was surprised when the funeral director noted the outro song for Bobby’s funeral service: When the Saints Go Marching In. Dock Sawyer brought in a five-piece brass band specifically for this segment, ending the service on a high note. “That was my daddy … he wanted everyone to be happy. He knew where he was going.”

At the end of the day, Bobby Owens was truly a friend to anyone who needed one. He told The Coastland Times back in December of 2022, “I believe in everybody and everything, I’ve had a wonderful life and I don’t regret any of it. I don’t know nobody I hate. I really don’t.”