Roger Owen, My Mentor and My Friend

August 1, 2019
Roger Owen at CMES
Roger Owen at CMES

It is impossible to sum up the life of Professor Roger Owen in a few paragraphs; even Roger found it difficult to edit his life in his wonderful memoir. I will focus on being his student and then his friend, and how he taught me how to pass forward his special brand of mentoring.

As a graduate student working on the history of Egypt and Sudan, I made my pilgrimage to Oxford to see Roger and Albert Hourani and receive their wisdom on my project. Albert enjoyed its potential but Roger told me in no uncertain terms that it was too big and would be very difficult (I would like to think that both of them were right in their ways). When two years later Roger joined the CMES faculty, I worried that he would not agree to be my advisor. I was also hugely pregnant with my first son, already writing my dissertation, and fearful that being a new mother would mean no one would take me seriously anymore. I was not looking to be molded—I was looking to be heard. And I was looking for an intellectual colleague to provide a home for historical ideas, as my husband and I moved far from Harvard for his first academic job.

Roger Owen at CMES
Roger Owen at CMES


Roger got this. In September, we created a chapter ­schedule so that I would be able to graduate that May. We created a workable, realizable schedule to make room for the birth of my baby and life with a newborn. This was in 1994, when email was but a dream. I would send Roger a chapter and he would send it back, with his comments, within two weeks. This became a ritual, and because he was so regular in commenting and so helpful with his insights, I got used to being regular in completing my chapters. Under the steadiness of this relationship and despite my son’s refusal to sleep at night, I finished my dissertation and graduated from Harvard in May 1995.

Roger got to know my husband and both of my children, visited us, let us stay with him when we came to Cambridge, and read drafts of my second book as well. We have a lovely memory of Roger, singing us a song and dancing a jig in the middle of Philadelphia to make the boys giggle. I have memories of Ben and Belle when they were little as well.

My older son is turning 25 this year. It’s a benchmark of so much life being lived, and a signpost of my relationship to my teacher. We were never not in touch, we always talked, we sometimes argued, and we built, year by year, a lovely friendship. As Roger got older and so bravely dealt with his degenerative illness, he taught me the particular grace of aging. He respected the wisdom that comes from illness, and when my husband was diagnosed with the cancer that ended his life, Roger was always calling, or writing, or sending us books for comfort. Losing Roger this past December was a punch in my gut. I miss my friend’s voice and I always will.

Finally, Roger taught me that one’s students are future colleagues, and the investment in their work is an investment in what can be an amazing and unique alliance. He was so proud of the people his students were and who they became as scholars. He gave that to me, and I feel the same way about mine. Just like Roger taught, there must always be a writing schedule.

I will not forget that as I forge ahead on a project—the first ever without Roger there to read it. Because, as he always said in ending a conversation: “Onwards!”

—Eve Troutt Powell, PhD ’95

Roger Owen, Ursula Owen
Roger and Ursula Owen on honeymoon

 

Susan Miller, William Graham, Thomas Mullens, Roy P. Mottahedeh
Susan Miller, William Graham, Roger Owen, Thomas Mullens, Roy P. Mottahedeh

 

Roger Owen, Edward Said
Roger Owen and Edward Said

 

Roger Owen, Rami Khouri
Roger Owen and Rami Khouri

 

Khaled Fahmy, Roger Owen, Mona Makram-Ebeid, William Granara
Khaled Fahmy, Roger Owen, Mona Makram-Ebeid, and William Granara at CMES