Joe Owens quit smoking in 1979 for a reason that won't endear him to half the world.
"I was in this how-to-quit class out in Fairfax," he says. "The majority of the students were women. I'll be damned if I was going to let a woman quit smoking and not me."
Quit arching those eyebrows. Nobody claims it was the most enlightened way in the world to stop smoking, least of all Joe Owens. But it worked, and Owens is delighted that it did. According to his doctors, if Joe Owens had not given up smoking when he did, he might well be dead today. He almost certainly would have had a laryngectomy.
But Joe Owens is so alive these days, so full of missionary zeal, that it's as if he's making up for lost time.
Every morning at 5:30 a.m., he walks through the streets of his Arlington neighborhood. "I just walk around, sampling the aromas, just to smell the trees," says Owens, who as a smoker seldom walked when he didn't have to and "couldn't smell the broad side of a barn."
Every evening, Owens, who is 49, jogs a mile through the same streets. "It was like some kind of breakthrough when I bought my first pair of jogging shoes," says Owens. "It was like rejoining the human race."
And every weekday, Owens preaches the nonsmoking gospel to his coworkers at the National Defense University in Southwest, where he is chief of the audiovisual support section.
Around the edges, Owens teaches smoking cessation classes for the American Lung Association of Northern Virginia. Meanwhile, he sings in the church choir again, an activity he had to abandon while he was a smoker "because I just didn't have the wind."
"I'm so down on smoking, I about wear it out sometimes," he says.
What a difference a few turns of the earth make. As recently as four years ago, Joe Owens was lying, cheating and stealing to keep himself in cigarettes.
In 1976, he pledged to his wife and his doctors that he would quit smoking. But every day, on his way to work, "I'd stop at the 7-Eleven and get a pack."
Meanwhile, at home, he would skulk around the house, filling a tin Sucrets box with "good butts" left in ashtrays by his wife and daughter. Like a teen-ager, he'd sneak a drag or two while taking out the garbage.
Perhaps the low point came in 1978, while Owens was hospitalized for surgery. He shared a room with a man who was dying of emphysema, but whose family had supplied him with a pack of his beloved Lucky Strikes just the same.
"When he was asleep, I stole them," says Owens. "I almost can't believe I'd do something like that, but I did."
Joe Owens has no trouble identifying the reason he started smoking at age 17. "My father, for sure," he says. "He smoked, and what was good for father was good for son."
For most of his 29 years as a smoker, Owens' brand was Raleigh. As in coupons. "That's how we got the majority of our Christmas presents," Owens says. "It was a backwards way of justifying smoking."
Curiously, although Joe Owens constantly preaches quitting to his coworkers and students, he has not tried to wean his family.
His wife, Fran, "smokes maybe 8 or 9 cigarettes a day. I ignore it. She wants to smoke. It'll either kill her or it'll stop," says Owens, with a shrug.
In the same way, Owens says he has never raised the subject with his son or daughter, both of whom smoke. "If they want to do it, they can go ahead. They know it's a bad habit. They don't need me to tell them," he says.
Quitting smoking has been a test of will power for Joe Owens. He proudly remembers passing a "mid-term exam."
"I knew I had it made when I drove to Mississippi to visit my daughter, never smoked, and never wanted to," he recalls. "Once you get it out of your system, it's gone."
Like a reformed alcoholic, Joe Owens now sits up straight in his office chair and says: "I'm proud to say that I'm an ex-smoker, even if it took a little male chauvinism to get me there."
Tomorrow: An essay from Phil Goldberg, and a poem from Kellie Witte