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.

The past, the present and the future

I watched three children walk down the sidewalk on my street. They were like The Three Bears. The oldest was texting on a Smartphone, as sure of her step and the girl in the viral video who walked into a fountain so intent she was on her screen. The middle child was a few years younger, her phone a little bigger. She was watching her screen. But she occasionally looked around, pigtails moving with the motion, to notice the things she passed, a cat on a wall, a passing car. The third child was a boy of about seven or eight. He was carrying a feather. He moved his fingers along the plume, watching them move back into place. He was the one with the right idea. My favorite line in literature comes from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” a story of powerful, hatred, survival, redemption and love. Shug walks a compliant Celie, who has been abused and mistreated her entire life, through a gorgeous field of nature, a field of glory. They pass purple flowers and Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.” The greatest show on Earth happens around us all the time. If we occasionally put down the phones and the tablets and the work and the bagge of life – and just watch, oh the things we’ll see.