Joe and Nancy Owens have created scholarships for African-American students at SMC. (photo by Santa Monica College)

SMC — Joe and Nancy Owens will never forget how scholarships helped them achieve fulfilling careers and lives. Joe was the son of a Texas tenant farmer, the youngest of eight children. His wife Nancy grew up on a farm in Tennessee.

“My wife and I both believe in higher education and we both wouldn’t have been able to do what we did without scholarships in college,” Joe Owens said.

The retired couple, who live in the Sunset Park area, have paid it forward through Santa Monica College. In 2006 they established the Nancy and Joe Owens Opportunity Fund for incoming African-American high school students and have recently created a similar fund for continuing African-American students.

The two funds together are endowed with a total contribution of $90,000 that will provide scholarships to SMC students ranging from $500 to $2,000 each. To date, six students have received scholarships.

“We’re extremely excited about the additional scholarship the Owenses have funded and we look forward to an even longer relationship with them as our students achieve their successes,” said Chip Potts, interim executive director of the SMC Foundation.

Joe was able to attend Texas A&M thanks to a scholarship from the W.P. and Bulah Luse Trust Fund. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1961 in electrical engineering and went on to earn a master’s in electrical engineering in 1963 from the University of Illinois, where he met Nancy.

After working for Hughes Aircraft Co. nearly 30 years as an aerospace engineer, designing radar components for fighter aircraft, he retired in December 1993.

Nancy earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee and her master’s degree from the University of Illinois, both in home economics, and taught at Mark Twain Junior High School in West Los Angeles. She then taught at Long Beach City College before embarking on a 35-year career at Cal State Northridge. She earned her Ph.D. from USC during her early years at CSUN. Although she retired in 2003 from her teaching position at the university’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, she continues to put in hours to document items in CSUN’s historical costume collection.

The couple knew they wanted to provide scholarship funds but the details of their donation needed to be fleshed out. A few years ago Joe read the book “Blood Done Sign My Name,” which deals with the 1970 murder of Henry Marrow, a black man in Oxford, N.C., that helped galvanize the civil rights movement throughout the state.

“That inspired me to say I wanted to do something for people worse off than me,” Joe said. “I grew up in the segregated South and I saw how black people were mistreated. So I thought of African-American kids and I wanted to do something locally and that’s what made me think of Santa Monica College.”

The couple has also endowed scholarships at other colleges and universities and has provided scholarships to nephews and nieces, as well as great nephews and nieces.

“Some years,” Joe said with a smile, “we spend a good deal of money on our relatives.”

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