DeKALB – Coach. Teacher. Mentor. Hall of Famer.
Walt Owens was a lot of things to the NIU community for decades. For Thomas Hammock, add matchmaker to the list.
“I actually met my wife [Cheynnitha] in his class,” the NIU football coach and graduate of the school said. “He said, ‘You should talk to that young lady.’ He had a certain way about him, how he communicated with students. ... But I took one class, next thing you know I had him for three different classes. I had him for bowling one, bowling two, golf. I didn’t even golf, and I took the class because of coach Owens. He was a staple for this university, and I was happy to have the opportunity to know him.”
Owens, a longtime baseball coach and faculty member at NIU, will be honored at a renaming ceremony for the NIU baseball complex Sunday. The field now will be known as Ralph McKinzie Field at Walt and Janice Owens Park.
Owens retired in 2007 and died in 2020.
Athletic director Sean Frazier said he’s been working to get the field named after Owens for a while. When he first got to campus in 2013, he said Owens gave him a baseball card with all his career information on it, something Frazier still carries around to this day.
“Walt Owens, what he contributed to this institution, and especially for the Black athletes here, is huge,” Frazier said. “Us doing this is for baseball, no question. But what it means to the Black community and all those years is something that is invaluable.”
Owens played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues from 1953 to 1955 while running track for Western Michigan. After teaching in Detroit, he came to NIU in 1973 as an assistant basketball coach in addition to joining the faculty.
He started coaching baseball in 1976 and is third in NIU history in career wins with 133 in seven seasons.
Frazier said what Owens meant to the Black community at the school during his time was a big piece of why he wanted to make this naming ceremony happen. He helped out a lot of Black students at a time when there wasn’t a lot of Black faculty on campus, Frazier said.
“Obviously, being who he was as an African American role model for the generations who have come through, that’s a tall task,” Frazier said. “You talk about the first African American AD trying to memorialize someone who meant so much to the community. This had to get done, and I’m happy for the supporters and the donors who stepped up. It’s a lot of pressure but good pressure.”
The ceremony starts at 11:15 a.m. Sunday before the Huskies’ noon game against Western Michigan.
“A lot of people are coming in, and it should be nice,” Janice Owens said. “Walt never thought it was going to happen, actually, but it did. And I’m glad for that.”
Owens said her husband would be grateful for the honor.
“He’d be really appreciative because he really tried to be a good mentor, and a lot of people will say he certainly was,” Janice Owens said. “While he was able to coach baseball, he did very well. Until they dropped baseball. He knew there was an effort to try to do something to commemorate him, and he thought, ‘Oh I don’t know if it will ever happen.’ He passed away in September 2020, and here it is.”
The naming ceremony marks the completion of a series of upgrades to the baseball field, most notably the installation of an artificial turf infield.
NIU coach Mike Kunigonis said it took awhile to produce the final product, but the result is something great for the baseball program and the community with Owens’ name attached to it.
“We’re excited to be able to do this for Janice and Walt,” Kunigonis said. “Walt has meant a lot to a lot of the people in the area, and he means a lot to me. And when I first got here with my wife, my daughter was 6 months old, and Walt and Janice took us in with open arms and made us feel welcome right away.”
Owens is a member of the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame, the Negro Baseball League Hall of Fame, the United States Specialty Sports Association Hall of Fame and the Detroit Negro Slow-Pitch Softball Hall of Fame.
Kunigonis said he felt honored to have known Owens and respected his legacy in the game.
“It’s very difficult not to get star-struck by it a little bit when you enjoy the history of the game the way I do,” Kunigonis said. “The amazing thing from him having to play under an assumed name in the Negro Leagues to keep his amateur status in college – not a lot of people know that. ... To have somebody to live that and call him a friend was pretty amazing for me personally.”