From Midwest to Middle East — Adventures of a missionary professor
MONMOUTH, Ill — Early in the screenplay of George Lucas’s 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, the scene suddenly shifts from a remote jungle to a peaceful small-college campus in the late 1930s. There, the charismatic professor Indiana Jones stands “at a bookcase near the window and he looks quite different in this setting. His outfit is tweedy, slightly rumpled in the professional style. Part of his attention is focused in a book and he wears glasses to see the fine print. The office is cramped, absolutely inundated with books, maps, etchings and archaeological artifacts.”
The scene might just as well have described the office of a brilliant professor who took up residence in Monmouth College’s Wallace Hall in the fall of 1937. While he never carried a bullwhip or outwitted Nazi villains, English professor Charles “Arch” Owen brought a lifetime of adventure to a post he would occupy until his death 14 years later. During that brief span, he would charm the imaginations of hundreds of English majors and non-majors alike.
Like Indiana Jones, Owen’s academic credentials were earned as much in the field as they were in a classroom. For three decades prior to returning to his alma mater, he had labored as a Presbyterian missionary, teaching English at Assiut College in Egypt. There, he had survived dangerous parasites, deadly disease and the atrocities of World War I.
Born in 1885 to conservative Presbyterian parents on a farm in Winchester, Kansas, Owen followed in his older brother Arthur’s footsteps and enrolled at Monmouth College in 1903. A football hero, Arthur was his lifelong idol and closest friend. Arthur’s decision to leave Monmouth for Yale Medical School would influence Arch to also attend Yale, where he eventually earned his Ph.D. in English.
As a student at Monmouth, Owen was elected captain of the debate team. Not content to rely on books for background, he prepared for a debate on banking and finance by traveling to Chicago to interview the president of the First National Bank of Chicago. For another debate on immigrant rights, he interviewed Irish and German workers working on the Illinois canal system.
Owen’s greatest talent, however, was writing, and the English major not only excelled on the staff of the student newspaper and yearbook, but also was a prolific composer of poetry and short stories. Aspiring to become a journalist, Owen spent a year after graduation on the staff of the Monmouth Review newspaper. He was on the verge of returning to Kansas to continue his newspaper career there when fate intervened.
While waiting for a taxi to take him to the train depot, Owen ran into a good friend, who was preparing to travel to the Presbyterian mission school in Assiut, Egypt, for a three-year stint as an English teacher. Remembering that a classmate of his, Tom Hamilton (later a longtime art professor at MC) was already teaching at that mission, he suddenly decided to apply to the Board of Missions himself, and soon found himself sailing to Egypt for a three-year appointment teaching English.
Arriving at Assiut with $8 in his pocket, Owen probably had mixed feelings when he first surveyed the mission school, which had been founded half a century earlier by the charismatic Scottish missionary John Hogg. In a biography of her father, Rena Hogg noted that from a distance the Egyptian village seemed quite romantic, “…mirrored in the water and glorified by a sunset sky. But a sordid reality was revealed in their dirt and disorder of poor and ruinous buildings, their reeking odours, and squalid, stagnating life.”
By 1911, Owen’s three-year obligation was up and he returned to America, where he joined his brother at Yale to earn his master’s degree. It was during this interlude that he renewed a relationship with his college sweetheart, Margaret Corette, who had enrolled in nursing school in Chicago after graduating from Monmouth. The couple was married on July 31, 1912, and 10 days later, they set sail for Egypt, where Arch had been offered a full-time position as professor of English at Assiut College.
In 1914, the Owens’ first son, John, was born, followed in 1915 by Charles Arch Owen Jr. Tempering the young couple’s joy was the escalating tension of World War I, as Egyptian rebels began rising against the British, violently attacking British soldiers, then British and American civilians. When two British soldiers were disemboweled and another’s eyes were gouged out in public, Owen witnessed the trial and heard first-hand testimonials. Margaret wrote home that her family was in no immediate danger, but “they say a whole generation of Christians is completely blotted out in Syria by the Turks. Besides slaughtering them by the thousands, they tortured them terribly, and all the women and girls have been taken into harems.”
Early in 1918, Owen was sent to Syria to oversee a library, do bookkeeping and distribute food to refugees. “Some of the cases of the poor refugees we come across,” he wrote, “are most pitiable, people who have come as refugees from captured towns, who tell horrible tales of the Turks and Germans. ‘Huns’, everyone calls them. We feed a certain number of genuine needy, and will try to clothe by degrees, the almost naked, so starved looking that I’m afraid winter will hit these folks hard.”
Just as the Owens were welcoming their third son, James, in 1919, tensions were elevating in the area of Assiut. College staff stood on the roof and watched starving natives loot the town. But on a bridge connecting the east and west banks of the Nile, a British machine gun cut all the rebels down.
Following the war, the Owens returned to the United States. Margaret and the children went to live with her parents in Washington, Iowa, while her husband returned to Yale to earn his Ph.D. By 1921, the Owens were back in Egypt, where Margaret gave birth to two more children — Richard and Margaret. Following the birth of his daughter, Owen took a sabbatical to work as a Sterling Fellow at Yale. Returning to Egypt in 1929, the family left the two oldest sons behind in Illinois to complete their schooling. The separation would prove emotionally draining for Margaret, and a year later, she and her other children returned to the United States, leaving Arch alone in Egypt to complete a 25-year tenure at the mission school.
To pass the time, Owen turned his energies to inventing fabulous tales to entertain the children of the mission, who would flock with their parents each evening to hear his creative cliffhangers.
As the 1930s progressed, the political situation in Egypt became increasingly dangerous and anti-Christian, so that by 1936 Owen faced the difficult decision of leaving the country where he had spent all but four years of his professional life. Despite heartfelt pleas from his students to remain, the 52-year-old professor set his sights on a new career in the States.
Offered a prestigious teaching position at Yale, Owen instead elected to return to his alma mater at Monmouth, where he would be made chair of the English department, following the retirement of Luther Robinson in 1938. He immediately sought to modernize the curriculum, particularly with the introduction of creative writing seminars, which he taught from his home — a comfortable old house on East Archer Avenue that would later house the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.
With the entry of the United States into World War II, Owen suddenly found himself volunteering to teach cadets in the U.S. Naval Flight Preparatory School on the Monmouth campus. But instead of Shakespeare and Milton, his lessons were based on the principles of calculus, a subject he had not studied since 1906. An avid gardener, he also started a Victory Garden on the lot next to his house.
In 1945, Owen suffered the first of two heart attacks. He soon recovered, however, and was back at his usual routine — teaching, preaching in rural churches on Sundays, working in his garden and even refusing an offer to take an office on a lower floor of Wallace Hall. But congestive heart failure eventually caught up with him and on a Sunday morning in April 1951 when he did not come down to breakfast, Margaret discovered he had died in his sleep. Lying on his dresser were his Arabic New Testament and car keys, ready for his weekly drive to preach at the rural Sugar Tree Grove Presbyterian Church.
A tribute to Owen in the 1950 college yearbook perhaps best sums up his remarkable life: “Any words that we might use to characterize Dr. Owen seem somehow insignificant, for he is not only a great teacher, but also a very great man. While teaching English to Monmouth students, he inserts into his courses a basis for a way of life.”
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.