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Justin Morrill Junkie: NMSU's Vice President Owens Digs Dirt, Surfs Net for Hobby

LAS CRUCES - Some people would give their last dime for Elvis' draft card or Marilyn Monroe's sequined dress.

John Owens, New Mexico State University's executive vice president, is a Justin Morrill junkie.

Owens has hauled back dirt from the historic statesman's yard in Strafford, Vt., made a photo album of Morrill's homestead, collected commemorative stamps and bought portraits and photos. He's even surfed the World Wide Web in search of Morrill's writings and autographs.

For a man who's never collected anything before, Owens sure has the bug now -- not that the object of all this attention doesn't deserve the recognition.

Justin Smith Morrill was born in 1801, the son of a blacksmith. Morrill ran a general store in Strafford and then turned to farming before he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1855.

It was there that he sponsored the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862, which created the nation's land-grant university system that boasts at least one university in each state. NMSU is New Mexico's land-grant university.

The act gave every state 30,000 acres of federal land for each congressional representative. The land was to be sold to provide for an endowment to fund "at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts ..."

Owens sees the Morrill Act as an invention for creating inventions, because it established a system of universities where new ideas and research would flourish.

"Justin Smith Morrill was a visionary," Owens says. "He had no way of knowing that the land-grant university would mushroom into the comprehensive educational and research enterprise it is today or that the system would be copied worldwide, but he understood the need for education to stay close to the people and be reflective of society."

Following his service in the House, Morrill was elected to the Senate in 1867. During his 43 years in the legislature, he also was the key player in beautifying the Capitol grounds, constructing both the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court buildings and completing the Washington Monument.

Owens' interest in Morrill has grown slowly over the years. In 1979, Owens, then an associate professor of entomology at NMSU, gave a paper at Michigan State University. There he saw a display about the Morrill Act and was struck by how the university was honoring its roots.

After that, Owens set out to get his own copy of the Morrill Act--in the largest size available from the National Archives. Framed and then lost in NMSU storage for a number of years, the copy finally was hung 10 years later in the hallway outside the dean's office of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences in Gerald Thomas Hall. Owens served as dean of the college from 1985 until he was moved to the office of the executive vice president and chief academic officer in June 1997.

During his tenure at the college, Owens expanded on the Morrill Act theme. Drawing on a phrase from the key passage of the act, he had "Leading Object" decals made for the college's doors and used the same title for the college's monthly newsletter. Today, "Leading Object" also is a registered trademark for video and multimedia productions developed by the college's agricultural communications department.

Recently, Owens stepped up his efforts to collect items related to Morrill. So far, he has five autographs and several books and stamps. About once a week, he does a search for Morrill on eBay and other online trading communities. He also checks with antiquarian booksellers who do business online.

"I joke that he may need to join an eBay recovery group," says his wife, Virginia Owens.

Perhaps the experience that forever solidified Owens' dedication to Morrill's memory came in October 1998, when he and Virginia visited Morrill's historic home in Strafford. Owens hoped to get some soil from the homestead to mix with NMSU soil during the ground-breaking ceremony for NMSU's new $22 million Center for Sustainable Development of Arid Lands, scheduled later that month.

But as he drove to Morrill's home, Owens started to get cold feet. "These people are going to think I'm absolutely crazy," he told Virginia.

Luck, however, was on his side. As he pulled into the driveway, Owens saw two men digging in the yard, moving a flagpole. Before his wife could get out of the car, Owens jumped out, talked to the workers and secured two plastic bags full of soil.

The rest of the day proved just as remarkable as the couple enjoyed a "beyond-the-ropes" tour of the home with the curator and director. "It was an incredible experience," Virginia says. "It is a wonderfully preserved site."

They even got to peek into Morrill's storage trunk in the attic and thumb through the volumes in his personal library. That day, Owens also joined the Friends of the Morrill Homestead, a group that fosters awareness of Morrill's legacy and works to preserve the homestead.

Since then, Owens keeps finding more ways to keep Morrill's legacy alive at NMSU. He still has quite a bit of that soil left, which he has had dried and ground. He plans to pour it into small vials and distribute it to friends and colleagues.

Much of Owens' Morrill collection may soon find a home at NMSU's Rio Grande Historical Collections. Last, but not least, he plans to suggest that the university and the Board of Regents consider naming an NMSU building after Morrill.

As the ideas keep coming, Virginia is just glad her husband has found a hobby that's more interesting than reading all those university memos he drags home every night in his briefcase.

For more information about the Friends of the Morrill Homestead, write P.O. Box 98, Strafford, VT, 05072.