Obituary: Dr. Richard Owen, 83, kept on fighting polio

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 29, 2011 - 10:19 PM

The Kenny Institute official was dedicated to others and didn't let lasting impact of childhood battle affect him.

Dr. Richard Owen

Dr. Richard Owen spent his life improving awareness and opportunities for people with disabilities, so when he retired he didn't see a reason to stop. But with no office space to entertain guests, the Eden Prairie man opened up his home.

Groups of schoolchildren visited Owen, who went by Dick, at his home, where he talked about the history of polio and his experience overcoming the disease. It was a fight that set the course of his life.

"He was such a kind, generous person," said his wife, Amy Owen. "He loved children."

Owen, 83, died Dec. 11. Friends and colleagues said he will be remembered for a career dedicated to helping the disabled and a fearlessness about living life despite perceived obstacles.

"I talk to a lot of people who were treated by him," said Sandy Landberg, executive director of the Sister Kenny Foundation. "Their claim was he was the most caring and compassionate person because of his personal experience with polio. He understood the impact of disability."

Owen was born and raised in Indianapolis, the middle of three children. He contracted polio when he was 12 and was ordered to a year of bed rest. He eventually walked with braces. As a teenager he underwent a pioneering muscle rehabilitation treatment called the Kenny Method, which allowed him to walk with a cane.

Decades later, Owen would become the medical director of the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis, an institution named after the Australian-born army nurse who had helped him regain his ability to walk.

Owen met his wife at George Washington University. He was in medical school, she was an undergraduate. On their journey west in search of work, the two made a pit stop in Minneapolis to catch a train. By chance, a medical conference was being held, and Owen attended. He was offered a job as a physiatrist, a physician of physical medicine and rehabilitation, at the institute and moved to Minnesota in 1957.

He left the institute after a few years and worked in private practice and at different hospitals before returning in 1980 as its medical director. In 1992, he founded the Post-polio Clinic there, a first-of-its-kind clinic that treated people who had overcome polio but experienced symptoms of the disease later in life.

"I think he was really moved by the independence he gained from the Kenny Method," Landberg said of Owen's work at the institute.

Owen's empathy and passion transcended the workplace. He competed in wheelchair athletics and helped develop criteria for the sports. (Although he could walk, strenuous sports necessitated a wheelchair.)

He got involved in wheelchair basketball when a patient at the Courage Center, a rehabilitation center, refused to play sports. A staffer asked Owen to play as a way of encouraging the reluctant patient. It worked.

"They saw him as a dedicated person who made it and continued to live a full and happy life," Amy Owen said. "That's how he related to patients, and he understood their feelings of frustration and sorrow at their lost function."

A lifelong outdoorsman, Owen was an active volunteer with Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit that provides outdoor activities for people with varying abilities. He helped train staff on how to work with disabled patrons while also serving as an example of what those patrons could accomplish.

"He was a fearless person when he was younger, and we did some pretty reckless things," his wife said fondly.

On a trip to Glacier National Park decades ago, one of their children scrambled across a log that had fallen across a stream. Owen followed.

"With his impaired balance and all, he walked across the log," Amy Owen said. "I was scared to death."

Owen is also survived by his daughter Marnie Owen, sons Rick and Don Owen and four grandchildren. Services were held earlier this month.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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