Where Past Meets Present

Camilla Owen

Focus In: Camilla Owen

Camilla Owen is a Retired Educator, Tennis Coach, Organizer of the WIAA State Tennis Tournament, Organizer of the WIC College and the Midwest Conference Tournaments, Co-Organizer of the Janesville Community Alliance Network, and a member of the Janesville Multicultural Teacher Scholarship Fund.

Camilla’s Awards

  • YWCA Woman of Distinction 2016
  • One of the Janesville Gazette’s “50 Who Matter” 2007
  • PTA Teacher of the Year 2005
  • Janesville Sports Hall of Fame 2002
  • UW-Whitewater Hall of Fame 1999
  • Middle School Teacher of the Year 1997
  • State Tennis Coach of the Year-1993 and 1996

Tell me about your family roots in Rock County.

My dad was born here and met my mother at the University of Alabama. After they married, they came back up here for the family business, Chambers and Owen. The business, a wholesale distributor, was established in 1890 by my great grandfather and Mr. Chambers.

What were some of the things you did while growing up?

I remember a lot of playing outdoors. We’d go to Lions Beach for fun and to the parks. We’d come downtown on a Saturday to Woolworths to get soda and fries at the counter. I also was into playing tennis.

We were fortunate. I mean, I was never without. But, I also feel that my parents didn’t spoil me. I still had to earn things, do chores and we would help out in the family business. We always had a sense of responsibility.

Camilla Owen - High School

Camilla Owen playing tennis during her high school years

How did you become interested in tennis?

I started playing tennis when I was around 8 or 9 years old. My mom and dad played, so I took lessons through Leisure Services. As I grew in love with the sport, I got more serious and attended tennis camps and took lessons with Stan DuFrane.

As I got older, my friends and I would congregate at the tennis courts at Craig High School. The ones who were kind of serious about playing were out there on the courts. We’d often just hang out there. We were a group of 12 to 14 girls. Our families and parents also played tennis together or played bridge or golf.

We’re still friends and have stuck together all these years! Some of us are living here, and a few are in the surrounding areas. We’re all going get together to celebrate our 60th birthday.

Craig Tennis Team uniforms

Craig Tennis Team uniforms

Tell me about some of your high school activities.

I was involved in sports and then National Honor Society, Quill and Scroll, wrote for The Phoenix, helping with sports writing about female sports. At that time, in 1973, it was only the second year for women’s tennis.

Together my teammates and I, along with our coach, made our own uniforms. This is how far women’s sports evolved. In women’s sports you had just the one uniform for all sports. We told our coach we wanted cool tennis outfits … so we made them ourselves!

When I was 18 or 19 I taught tennis for the Leisure Services, and ran the Janesville Junior Open tournament.

What were your ambitions for after high school?

I definitely thought I was going to be a Phy Ed teacher or do tennis professionally. You know how you dream those things, that you’re going to be in the big leagues?

So, I went to the University of Alabama. I tried out for the tennis team and made it! I thought, “This is grand!” All of a sudden, in my first year, I had knee issues. After so many doctor visits, I eventually came back to see a UW Madison Sports Doctor, William Clancy.

He went in with a scope, which was new technology back then. He opened up my knee. I had stiches, the whole bit! Turns out I had a hole under my kneecap. It was only the second one he’d seen. My kneecap was shifted, so he had to operate and get it all fixed and filled. Forty-one years later, I just had my first cortisone shot, so it’s lasted that long!

I had to take a semester off for knee surgery. After returning to the University of Alabama, I studied for another year and a half. Then there were some changes going on there, so I came back up here to go to Whitewater and played on the tennis team there. I’m in their Hall of Fame, which is proof that they accepted me on the team (laughs).

My original degree was in Broad Field Social Studies Teaching. Later, I earned a degree in Special Education.

Tell me about your career in education.

With a grant from the Job Training Partnership Act, I got a job working in the Special Education department at Parker High School. Part of my work was to help these special students find jobs. We had a local restaurant called King’s Pub. They’d get a job there with the deal that the establishment would pay part of their salary, and we’d pay part of it. After 60 days or so, they’d take them on in regular positions.

The school reapplied for the grant, but wasn’t accepted, and I was out of a job at semester. John Brinkman and Joan Knickerbocker were in Special Ed and needed an aide. And, boy, I connected with those kids! The EBD students were in an adjacent room, and I developed a positive rapport with them, as well. So, I went in to get a provisional license in Special Education.

The following year, I was hired for the new Alternative Program at the YMCA, but at the same time got a call from Parker High School. They needed me there because of a sudden teacher void. I learned the ropes with Erin Kuehn, a certified Special Ed teacher. We had a really good time and I ended up staying!

After nearly 30 years of teaching, I retired and then worked with Dr. Kim Ehrhardt in a group that visited schools to sort of observe teachers and their objectives. We would meet with them, and to figure out if they were making strides in math and reading.

There was some resistance to what we were doing, some skepticism, but I believed we were in there to make things better for our district and students. As we became more visible, and when they learned that we had also taught, that made things easier. We worked with the students who had difficulties, as well. That way the teacher could teach the lesson while we helped with those who needed it. We didn’t want to just be observers.

Camilla Owen - High School Coach

Camilla Owen, in the middle, as a High School Coach

Tell me about your coaching career.

Early on, I was also coaching tennis at Franklin Middle School. Then, they needed a tennis coach at Parker. Sudad Baban was the boys coach at Parker and told me he was leaving. I applied for the job, but was told, “Men do boys sports and women do girls sports.”

Then an opening came up at Craig and the same thing happened there. I got shot down. But, I said, “With tennis, I don’t see that distinction. I don’t have to be in a locker room, and I know how to play the game.”

I went to Stan DuFrane and Bob Suter, and asked, “What do I do?” They came back to me and said that I got the job. I had known these boys from running the tournaments. When I told them that I got the job and I how I would love to coach them, they were so excited to have me. They shouted, “Oh my God, that would be so fun!”

In 1987 Barb Dietz came to me and said, “I’ll only quit if you’ll be coach.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” Dick Iglar, then Principal at Franklin, said, “You go take that job.” So, I was coaching both boys and girls, and think we did a very good job of building up that program. I was there until 1999.

I took a little hiatus and went to Franklin Middle School to do the At-Risk Program there. We were going to trailblaze that, and during that time I spend a lot of time taking students to court appearances, to their therapy sessions, get them to appointments and such. So, tennis had to take a back seat.

I came back to tennis in 2008 or so for about 4 years at Craig high school, teaching girls’ tennis. I also had my nieces on the team at that time.

Eventually, I started Quick Start Tennis. This is now our 11th year. It’s now called Midwest Team Tennis. We start introducing the game of tennis to students age 4-14. It’s through the Janesville Tennis Association. We’re a non-profit and started with 30 students, and now we’re over 100! We recently started indoor lessons, so I’m at the Athletic Club for that.

Now I run the WIAA State Tournament and have been doing that for about 20 years. There’s something about running tournaments that I love. Now I do the WIC College and the Midwest Conference, which is like Grinnell, St. Norbert, etc. My goal is to do the best I can each time.

I’ve been a tennis instructor for over 40 years and tennis coach for more than 25 years. I still enjoy playing tennis today. It was limiting until I got this cortisone shot. Now I’m in heaven!

Who were your tennis celebrity role models?

I grew up watching Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. They were my inspirations. My parents took me to an exhibition match in Rockford with Billie Jean King. I was so excited about that.

Once, I ran into her by chance at an airport! I went up to her and said, “I know, I know I shouldn’t do this, but I think you’re just great. I have your book.” She said, “Oh my gosh, that was my first book!”

Chicago had a tennis workshop for high school coaches. She was there and I had her sign the book. And one of the coaches I worked with, her sister was doubles partners with King. I reminded her of Jackie Eggelhoff, and she said, “Oh yes!”

Janesville Education Foundation

Janesville Education Foundation

What have been some of your community activities?

I was on the YWCA Board for a while, and on the Boys and Girls Club as well as a United Way representative for Franklin Middle School for 15 years.

I was co-chair of the Janesville Education Foundation and around that time, Karen Schulte had a program called Excellence in Education Foundation, and she asked me to head that. During my work there, I noticed how similar the two programs were, so I thought we should merge. Thank God we did that and combined resources and energy.

We brought in Susan Sellman, Sandra Ardrey and Roberta Blazkowski. Howard Gage was there and Joel Moore, plus others. We were able to give several grants, which all come from private donations.

We gave them out to different areas of education such as a Parker teacher who taught about forestry at JSOL, a Craig teacher who used a swivel robot to record her lessons, which were then uploaded to YouTube. We gave a grant to an art teacher working with students on 3D projects and one for OSMO computer programs which help students with math, reading and other skills. It’s been great.

For Project 16:49, I was able to help judge the first two years of their annual Lip Sync Battle fundraiser.

But then, my mom died. It’s been nearly a year. So, it’s been tough for me to stay as involved in the community. My dad needs me now. I didn’t realize “the glue” that my mother was … she was IT! They had a close relationship. I was kind of dumbfounded by how much her death has affected him.

I’m building a house across the street from my dad and then I’m going to have him move in. He just laughs at me, but I think he’d benefit from it. He said we should put him in a home, but after I took him out to see some of these places, he decided he didn’t really want to go there. He’s very active still. He’s 87, continues to go to work at Chambers and Owen. And he works out with a trainer twice a week!

But, grief just doesn’t end. You have to grow with it. He’s doing much better, but I can see how grief has taken its toll.

How did you get involved in the Multicultural Teachers Scholarship organization?

Karen Schulte, Edna Feldman-Schultz and Senator Tim Cullen and others on the board of the Janesville Multicultural Teachers Fund were trying to figure out how to raise money. I ended up talking to Karen and encouraged her with an idea to make an event out of it with entertainment, food, and to have the recipients come and speak. She then told me, “You’re going to be on the board!”

It’s been so good to see these students come back and teach. We’ve had some good fundraisers. We had one with Tommy Thompson, which really brought out the families with money, the Cullens, the Kennedys.

Thompson was fabulous that night! He talked about each one of these young people and knew things about each of them. Like a true politician, he had the attendees in the palm of his hand, tears and smiles. It was great. One of the sons of the Kennedys was so moved by this that they have continued to be supportive of the program through the years.

The Janesville Multicultural Teacher Scholarship program started in 2008 and its purpose is to provide a multicultural pool of teacher candidates for the Janesville School District. We’re still in need of support.

Sometimes it’s hard to convince people in this area how important it is to bring in people of color in to teach children of color, to be their role models and set an example. We have to face and embrace the diversity in this town.

Our 2018 event is coming up on Feb. 8 at the Armory. The tickets contribute to this great cause. It actually takes $25,000 to give one scholarship. We give the recipient 5 years at $5,000 a year. Sometimes we give out one scholarship, sometimes two or three scholarships, depending on what we have.

Now this year, we have 3 graduating and so this is finally our chance to see it come to fruition. It’s so exciting! They’re required to meet a certain GPA and all. They are also required to dedicate 3 years of teaching to our Janesville school district. Those students who have come back have made an incredible impact.

They are exceptional teachers, like Nicole Washington. It’s great to see how it comes full circle!

What has been a significant event that impacted you?

Well, locally, what really sticks out to me was GM closing and seeing the ripple effect in the schools. Seeing those students, the emotional toll and the turmoil that was happening in their lives was tough. Amy Goldstein, the woman who wrote, Janesville; An American Story, came to talk to me. Kim Ehrhardt gave her my name. In turn, I gave her other names. She even came to see my classes and such.

When I was teaching middle school, we did a holiday program for the needy students, which had first started with about 25 students who didn’t have much. This was before GM closed. Then, we built it up to over 100 students because other teachers were recommending more names of students. How do you turn them down?

My sister Katherine Bolton raised funds for us to be able to buy them coats and clothes and toys. We also had them pick out something they could give to other family members, like a brother or their mom or dad or their grandparents. We chose the neediest students, had a party in the gym right before school let out for Christmas break. But, really, GM closing created some hardships and divides.

Statewide, Act 10 was also a significant event. I had to make a decision to retire at 55. The district was playing games and not guaranteeing we’d have our insurance. We weren’t under a contract, so things weren’t stable. But, I ended up working for the district in a different capacity with Dr. Ehrhardt, anyway.

What are some of the changes you have seen in education through the years?

When I was in high school, we had lectures, took notes, had expectations from the teacher. We had FEAR from our parents. We had to keep up with our work and expectations from them, too. I started to teach, and I saw creativity in teaching and the students would soak it up and were learning.

When I taught Special Ed, Steve Sperry and I created the block program and then we would take these students and go out and work in the community. They’d do volunteer work. They would get paid for working at places like Chambers and Owen or at Rotary Gardens.

But now, I have watched my colleagues become so pressured to test, test, test! Mike Dean was one of those teachers who brought social studies alive. For example, he’d show up in class with suitcases and stickers from various countries, and the students would have to figure out where the bags had traveled. I feel like teaching has become so rigid, and there are so many pressures on teachers now, holy moly!

Now teachers are testing so much that they feel in October how they used to feel in April, toward the end of the year. It’s a huge change. I know we need to keep records, but we did not have that kind of constant testing when I went to school.

If you could give some advice to someone who wants to become a teacher, what would that be?

I’d say to find ways to be creative with teaching while still meeting the standards. Try to differentiate and give challenges to those who get it, but get creative with teaching to help the majority understand the lesson. Use things that represent what they know it everyday life. I knew a teacher who used Aaron Rodgers’ stats for math class … it would engage the students and appeal to them. You have to do that.

When I was teaching would take a survey of my students at the beginning of the year to learn about my classroom. You need to find out what interests your students and teach by incorporating those ideas.

Camilla Owen - Janesville Hall of Fame

Camilla Owen – Janesville Hall of Fame

Do you plan to stay here in Rock County?

Yes! I’m building!

What is it about Rock County that you love?

It’s home to me. I know a lot of people. It’s also a great size, not overwhelming and congested like the big cities. I’ve been fortunate. It feels comfortable here, worth staying.

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