Tech in Retrospect

Owens and Owens: Making the best of a "mess" by Clara B. Cox M.A.'84

When John Joseph "Pop" Owens died, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (today's Virginia Tech) dismissed its 9 a.m. Saturday classes to honor the memory of the popular mess steward who had used food to keep his "boys" happy and to spur the demise of a dangerous campus tradition. Today, the man who won the cadets' hearts is memorialized in the building that bears his name: Owens Dining Center.

Culinary innovation

When plans for a new dining hall were announced in 1938, one of the facility's bragging points was that "all cooking will be done with electricity." Designed in an H-shape and covering the greatest area of any campus structure at that time, the hall, which opened in 1939, included dining areas in its two wings and a kitchen in the middle.

Now a national leader in university student dining, Owens Dining Center sports an atmosphere akin to a shopping mall food court. Its Hokie Grill & Co. pioneered a new dining experience for college eateries: branded concepts--or fast-food chains. Its Owens Food Court features 12 specialty shops, while Personal Touch Catering provides various customized services.

From dynamite to dinner

The building's namesake was born in Ireland but grew up in Baltimore. After graduating from Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (Tech's initial name) in 1879, Owens was chief steward at Baltimore's Carlton Hotel, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, and then the Roanoke Elks Club.

Virginia Tech hired him in 1917 as mess steward, but the affable Irishman did more than manage the mess hall. His interest in the cadets' welfare and his wise counsel prompted students to call him "Pop."

Pop's first year was certainly memorable. For breakfast one day, he introduced soft-boiled eggs in the shell. Cadets from two companies used the eggs in an ensuing battle that splattered buildings, walkways, and uniforms, marking the end of soft-boiled eggs on Pop's menus. Another breakfast soon after left most members of the corps violently ill. Pop took the food to the college labs, which detected tannic acid that had leached from the lining of new pots. Pop discarded the pots.

But on Dec. 2, 1917, Pop more than made up for these disasters by initiating a Thanksgiving feast that became an annual event known as "Big Growly Day." The culinary delights left cadets--or growly hounds--hailing Owens as a chef of genius and stature.

Pop also helped found the Catholic Club of VPI, led a group of students in building a small Roman Catholic chapel in town, modernized the dining facilities, and remained a faithful friend and adviser to the cadets.

His influence in gentling the annual Sophomore Night, however, may be his most significant contribution to Virginia Tech. For years, sophomores had set off dynamite and engaged in other high jinks, many of them destructive and dangerous. Pop convinced the students to sit down to a delicious dinner instead, possibly saving some lives in the process.

By the time Pop died in 1940, he had already become a campus legend.

What's in store?

At least for the foreseeable future, no changes are planned for Owens Dining Center other than minor cosmetic upgrades and the normal rotation of shops in and out of the food court to keep students happy--just what Pop Owens would have ordered.

Clara B. Cox is director of publications and outreach communications.