As a Staples High School student in the early 1970s, Tom Owen had great teachers. But, he admits, “I wasn’t as invested in them as they were in me.”
A self-described “jock” who claims football, skiing and baseball got him through school, it’s not surprising that Owen ended up coaching at his alma mater.
It’s harder to believe he also spent the past 36 years as a teacher there.
Owen retires this month after a storied career. He coached Wrecker golfers to 3 state championships — he was an all-around jock — and “15 or 20” boys and girls state skiing titles (he lost track during his 23- and 5-year Staples stints, with 8 years at his son and daughter’s Joel Barlow High School in between).
But his impact is even greater on countless special education students. He guided group after group from 9th grade to graduation — and remained their mentor far beyond.
It was an unlikely career for a kid who spent his freshman year at Norwich University — a private military school in Vermont.
“That didn’t go so well,” Owen laughs. “I thought I could ski every weekend, and carry on my high school shenanigans. Instead, I ended up walking thousands of tour duties.”
Transferring to Ohio University was a better choice. He joined the rugby team — a jock is a jock — and after sophomore year, told a counselor he wanted to be a phys. ed. teacher.
She suggested he look into a new field: special education. It appealed to him — particularly because he could coach after school.
Owen started as a Staples paraprofessional in 1979. That same year, Long Lots Junior High football coach Bob Yovan retired. His former school — the same place he’d met his future wife, Deb — handed the 24-year-old his 1st head coaching job.
He quickly realized how lucky he was. His 2 jobs — teaching and coaching — brought him in contact with tens of thousands of “amazing” people. “I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do this,” Owen says. “I had the greatest interactions with kids, parents and colleagues. I got to be a teacher for students, a counselor for families, an educator and a mentor.”
In the 1990s, he and longtime fellow teacher/friend/sidekick Diann Drenosky — who also retires this month — worked in a separate building near Staples’ 9 Building. “The Little House” provided an innovative way to teach both academic and living skills. The kids were tough, but Owen, Drenosky, paraprofessional Ann Rully and Westport Police youth officer Arnie de Carolis created a warm, family atmosphere there.
“It was a great program,” Owen says. “We were devastated when it ended.”
Generations of students are grateful that he and Drenosky remained a team. “We laughed a lot — at each other, and ourselves,” Owen recalls. “We cried some too. She’s a special person, and she touched so many people over the years.”
Coaching allowed Owen to reach other students, in different ways. “Looking back, I can’t believe the amount of time and emotional investment I put into it,” he says. Football and golf are demanding enough; he just shakes his head at the memory of “standing on the Southington ski slope at 9 p.m., when it’s minus-30 degrees.”
Much has changed over the past 36 years, of course. As a coach, he’s seen far greater parental involvement — for better and worse.
“Parents help a lot with organizing now,” he says, declining to discuss the negative aspects. “My parents basically just showed up at a few games.”
He has the special perspective of having attended the same school where he spent his entire teaching career.
“Things were so casual back then,” he says of his student days. “The stress level was way lower — maybe to a fault. The stress kids have today is over the top.
“We were much more independent. Our parents were way less involved. We solved things more on our own.”
He is not putting today’s teenagers down, he notes. “That’s just the way it is. I would have done better in school if I was under all the rules and regulations we have today. I definitely took advantage of the lack of discipline.”
But, he adds, “I wouldn’t do anything any differently.”
Owen’s free-spirited attitude continued into adulthood. At his retirement dinner, colleague Tony Coccoli said, “Every Tom Owen story ends with, ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.'”
Retirement will give the self-described “jock” more time for sports. He and Deb’s children, Patrick and Lex, spend winters at Jackson Hole. Owen may become a ski instructor, and/or work in a golf pro shop.
“I’m 59 years old,” he says. “I’ve ‘gone to school’ for 54 of those years. This fall will be a big adjustment.
“I look forward to it. But I feel really, really fortunate to be part of Westport for so long.
“While you’re in the middle of it, things just happen. But now as I get away from it, I realize how in many ways, this town and school defined who I am.”