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Owen reels in a keeper for Ubben Series anniversary

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Anyone who has done any amount of fishing knows the big ones don't just jump in the boat.

Perhaps even more than a rod and reel, to be a successful fisherman you need the patience of Job, the fearlessness of Jonah and the optimism of Noah.

You have to fish deep and wait the lunkers out. But the payoff can be a trophy for the ages.

DePauw University Executive Director of Media Relations Ken Owen just finished such a fishing expedition. And he landed a big, big fish.

Owen, DePauw and the Ubben Lecture Series have reeled in President Bill Clinton for a 3 p.m. Nov. 18 appearance that will mark the 25th anniversary of the lecture series.

And rest assured, the saga of how Owen, who administers the Ubben Series, landed the 42nd president for a Greencastle visit is no fish story.

"I'm in the ballpark of two years now, going from a germ of an idea of 'wouldn't it be nice to bring him here' to getting it done," Owen said Monday afternoon, finally able to relax over a late-afternoon Pepsi after making the Clinton announcement public.

Admittedly, Owen enlisted the help of some DePauw friends who are Clinton associates or acquaintances. DPU graduate and Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan was one. Writer Tom Chiarella, now listed as a visiting professor of creative writing at DePauw, was another.

Chiarella, who pens a regular column for Esquire magazine, recently went to Haiti with Clinton on a post-earthquake humanitarian venture.

When the subject got around to DePauw University, Clinton piqued local interest with an unsolicited comment to the effect of: "Oh yeah, I've always wanted to go there."

Last summer, Owen intensified the effort, hoping to land a big-name Ubben lecturer to commemorate the silver anniversary in style.

"I'd been looking at the calendar for about two years," Owen reflected. "I wanted the 25th anniversary to be a home-run event. I think this is going to put a capstone on what the Ubbens have done for DePauw."

Discussions started to reach the serious negotiation point near the end of November last year, Owen said.

"So it's been about 10 months of casting my line and waiting for a nibble," he said.

"But I'm a stubborn mule, and I don't give up easily. There are a few I could have given up on, and this probably could have been one of them. It takes a lot of strategy and a lot of luck."

Finding the right date on the former president's calendar was one big hurdle that had to be overcome.

"It came down to two dates," Owen explained. "The first was the Friday of fall break -- so that was a deal breaker since there would be no one on campus -- and the other was the week after the Monon Bell Game."

While the latter wasn't perhaps ideal, it certainly will be more than workable.

"From the start I was looking at November because the actual anniversary of the first Ubben lecture is in November," Owen said.

That first lecture was Nov. 5, 1986 when Richard Lamm, the governor of Colorado, addressed a university audience.

By the time Clinton talks this November, he will be the 90th speaker in the series, joining the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Colin Powell, Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee and Peyton Manning.

"Me and my big mouth," Owen said, recalling how he had told Timothy and Sharon Ubben that he wanted to put on a really big show that would fill the fieldhouse and its estimated 5,000 seats.

"The problem is, there are probably five people living, available and working who could do that."

Don't expect a political speech from Clinton, Owen says.

"Regardless of where you stand politically I think he will have something to say to you," he said. "I think what we'll hear is a call to action for each of us to help make the world a better place and for each of us to step up and take responsibility for that."

That would be in keeping with the humanitarian beliefs alive at DePauw as its students endeavor to make the world a better place.

Overall the speakers in the Ubben Series have been timely, inspiring and downright amazing to behold on a campus of 2,400 inside a city of 10,300. One thing it hasn't been though is scheduling.

"You think when you're running a speaker series, all you need to do is open a catalog and pick one," Owen said. "But it's not as easy as that."

He admits to a lot of "odd courtships."

Owen can get pitched 40 to 100 names a week by agents and agencies but the Ubben Series has carved out a niche for offering timely and distinctive speakers three to five times a year at DePauw. The Ubbens themselves want the program to be relevant to students and the world around them.

Consequently, coverage of speeches from Greencastle has shown up on C-SPAN, CNN, the political Sunday morning talk shows and in national newspapers like The Washington Post.

"Whether it's New York or Los Angeles or Zimbabwe, if it's reported that Bill Clinton's in Greencastle, Ind., it helps to brand us," Owen said.

"We want to be a certain level where essentially we're creating a brand," Owen said. "We don't want to be a high-end steakhouse and serve hotdogs twice a week."

Conversely you can't put big names too close to each other or the impact of their appearance can be lost or diminished.

"That would be like playing Wabash (College) every week," Owen said, alluding to the once-a-year fervor of the Monon Bell.

Overall the lecture series has not only been good for DePauw but good for the community.

"How many other cities in Indiana -- other than Indianapolis -- can boast of having these kinds of speakers?" Owen asked.

So with Bill Clinton already on his stringer for this fishing trip, where can we expect Owen to next cast his net?

"There's some fish still swimming outside the boat," he smiled. "We have one big fish in the boat, so I don't know if there's room in there for a second one."

Rest assured that won't keep him from baiting his hook.

"The neat thing," Owen concluded, "is that (because of the endowment that funds the series), 200 years from now they'll still be having Ubben Lectures."

Hmmm. Then maybe it's time to start working on that 225th anniversary speaker.