Mentor. Man of distinction. Legend.

Those accolades and many others were showered upon retiring Orangeburg County Councilman Willie B. Owens Sr. on Tuesday afternoon.

Family, friends and community leaders gathered to honor the man who has represented District 7 over the past 15 years.

They also gathered to cut the ribbon on the 5,000-square-foot Whittaker Community Center at 2020 Whittaker Street, which was made possible by Owens’ vision and efforts.

“I want to thank everybody who has worked with me down through the years that made this community center possible,” Owens said. “This community center will provide a place where the community can have community meetings.”

“The community center should be a prominent part of the community,” Owens continued. “It should be able to serve its people and be able to provide the kind of activities that make our community grow not just here in Orangeburg but in other areas of our city and county.”

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Prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Orangeburg County Council unanimously passed a resolution honoring Owens for his service.

Owens announced earlier this year that he would resign from council for health reasons on June 30 and not seek re-election.

Latisha Walker, a Democrat, is the lone candidate running for the Orangeburg County Council District 7 seat in November. The seat will remain open until that time. Walker was in attendance at Owens’ retirement celebration.

The community center, which was paid using about $500,000 from the county’s capital projects sales tax, includes a community room, meeting room, offices and kitchenette.

The center was built two years ago by Orangeburg-based Paragon Builders, but its opening was delayed in an effort to protect seniors from COVID.

Owens’ wife, Arminta, recalled when her husband was younger how he visited the Sprinkle Avenue and Jamison communities to see their community centers and wants to invite members of those communities to also visit the Whittaker center.

“He worked on it day and night,” Arminta said.

Owens continues to wake up and talks about those days, she said.

Arminta said his mother Lillie Ruth and her mother were always supportive of Owens during his time in office.

“They have been a little guiding light,” Arminta said. “He remembers the foundation that she (Lillie) laid for him to give of himself and to help others. He thought county council was just another one of his children.”

Owens’ family members were in attendance.

“This is a real historical occasion,” Concerned Citizens of the Whittaker Heights Community President Andrew Johnson said.

In addition to praising Owens and Orangeburg County Council for their work, Johnson also praised former state senator John Matthews, former state representative Harry Ott and former Orangeburg County Council chairman John Rickenbacker.

“This goes back for decades and we are here today for all the hard work they have done,” he said.

Johnson said there has been progress in the community with about half the community having access to public sewer, security lighting and road resurfacing, all thanks to Owens’ efforts. Owens also helped distribute food to those in need during the pandemic.

“Councilman Owens, we really, truly appreciate you,” Johnson said. “He has been on the road doing things. When you have an advocate on county council who is going to work for you and work with you toward accomplishing these kind of goals, hey, your work is not too difficult.”

Orangeburg County Councilman Johnny Ravenell recognized Owens for his vision for the community center and for his service to the county.

“We know in our heart this is going to be beneficial to the community,” Ravenell said. “We pray the community will use it to the fullest of what its intent is for.”

Councilman Kenneth McCaster thanked Owens for being a mentor and for all that he has done over the years.

Councilman Joseph Garvin also praised Owens for the legacy he left in District 7 and throughout the county.

“God bless you Mr. Owens,” Garvin said. “I pray this community center will do something for our community because we have so much going on in our community. Our young men, we have to grab hold to them and hold their hand. Truly it takes a village to raise kids.”

Orangeburg County Council Vice Chair Janie Cooper-Smith said when she first ran for office 27 years ago, Owens was one of the first people she called. She noted his work in civil rights.

“He was very active in voter registration and school segregation and everything else that has to do with the betterment of Orangeburg County,” she said.

“He is indeed a friend,” Cooper-Smith said, noting Owens helped to drive her around due to her fear of driving. “He never said no. Never. He was always there on time.”

“I know Whittaker will use this center,” Cooper-Smith said. “This facility will not be in vain.

“Willie, you went through a lot of sweat and tears to get this done but thank God it came to fruition. I know the people will enjoy it.”

Councilwoman Deloris Frazier praised Owens’ wife.

“Behind every good man is a much better woman,” Frazier said.

She recalled working with Owens on the Coalition for Effective Education.

“We were all working together to make sure that we had a bigger and a better Orangeburg – an educated Orangeburg,” she said.

“Willie B. was that person,” Frazier said. “We walked to many houses knocking on doors, begging people to vote because the ballot box is the way to do any and everything. This is the kind of person Willie B. was. Thank you for being you. We love you Willie B.”

Council Chairman Johnnie Wright said, “I think he has done a lot to help shape the way council moves forward.

“He was very outspoken person and he said what he felt about things. I respect him because of that. He was a person of his word and if he said something, you could put your hat on it.”

“I think he did a lot for his district and the county as a whole,” Wright said. “He helped move the county forward on race relations and economic development.”

Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young said Owens was his mentor and a stalwart on county council.

“It was easy for him to be a council member, because he was already a leader in the community,” Young said. “His foundation was through education. He has led a lot of young men and young women to great things in this community because he always had a passion for young people.”

“We feel like his legacy is cemented by everything he has done for not only his district but Orangeburg County as a whole,” Young continued. “He will be missed as a council person, but we will remember his legacy very well within the community.”

Orangeburg Mayor Michael Butler said the city will continue to stand with the county, with the community center being just one example of things moving forward in Orangeburg County.

“Anytime we make progress in this county, it is to be commended,” Butler said. “Out of all the bad things happening throughout the world, here is something good that we can celebrate.”

Butler prayed that the community center will benefit all those who come through its doors.

Owens has been instrumental in a number of projects in Orangeburg County over the years, such as advocating for the construction of the Whittaker Street community center and the Martin Luther King Jr. monument at the Orangeburg County Courthouse.

Owens has also been instrumental in economic development, including the development of industrial parks. The new Orangeburg County Library and Conference Center was also developed during Owens’ time on council.

Owens was first elected in April 2007 to fill the unexpired term of former District 7 councilman John Rickenbacker.

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