R.I.P Mr. Owens. Thanks for helping me find my voice.

One of the sad truths about living far from where you grew up is that you sometimes miss things: bits of news, classmates’ birthdays, passages – and tragedies. 

I missed a big one, and want to thank an old friend for sharing through Facebook the death of someone who changed my life.

His name was Lloyd Owens. I didn’t know until after I’d graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that he had any other name by Lloyd.

No matter. He was just Mr. Owens to those of us in chorus.

He was Mr. Owens to those of us who worked on the stage plays at Tarboro Senior High: Lil’ Abner, Guys and Dolls.

He was Mr. Owens to those of us whose lives he touched, whose spirits he lifted and whose personas were molded by his generous spirit, his huge love of life and his constant nurturing.

He was one of those teachers, coaches, mentors who took seriously the job of nurturing children. It wasn’t just a job. We could tell that he loved it, and he loved us.

As for me, he helped give me my voice.

It was my greatest challenge, my dual personalities: I was secretly shy. No one knew it because I participated in everything: student government, athletics, cheerleading (Yes, I know some consider it a sport.), drama club, French club, band and – gloriously – the chorus.

And since most of the singers who auditioned for roles in the annual spring play were from the chorus, I got to watch up close something I’d wanted to do forever.

One year, we were doing “Guys and Dolls,” my favorite musical for years. “The Color Purple” and “Hamilton” have since stolen my heart. But back then, Guys was everything. I didn’t want a starring role. I just wanted to sing on stage.

The first auditions were in Mr. Owens’ office – and I was so nervous. He listened for a just a few seconds, stopped me and said. “Come back when you’re ready. Know the words. Feel them. Make them yours.” And with a flick of his hand, I was dismissed.

I learned the words. I learned the song. And on the day of open auditions, in front of every other hopeful, I stood at the edge of the stage to sing “This Is My Country.” I chose it because it was easy, there were no high parts, it was perfect for my voice range.

And I got out one full phrase – “This is MY country, land that I love…” – before my throat closed, and I couldn’t go on.

Mr. Owens didn’t prolong my embarrassment. He said, “Try again when you’re ready.”

Decades later, when I decided to become a newspaper columnist, it was because I’d finally found my voice, and I wasn’t afraid to use it. I just wasn’t meant to sing the words.

I still love to sing. I didn’t try again until church choir on Sundays and a charity talent show one Friday night, with “My Funny Valentine.” I thought of Mr. Owens and wish I had sent him a video, showing that my becoming a columnist shook off the nerves that had made it hard for me to be on stage.

Now I’m a public speaker and commentator without fear. I appear on television without blinking. I might even make a record.

I’m sorry I didn’t go home and tell him “Thank you for helping me find my voice. I came back when I was ready, just like you told me.”

Tarboro has lost a beautiful, kind man, who nurtured kids and helped us all find our voices, our callings, our joy.

There is no greater legacy than that.

ROCHELLE RILEY’s essays on this blog are personal. No reprints without permission. You can read her newspaper columns at www.freep.com/rochelleriley and follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.