IT MAY BE NO NEWS today when one of Greater Washington's leading financiers calls for more high-powered interest and investment in the city's poorest downtown neighborhoods, but when Thornton W. Owen urged this on his colleagues nearly a generation ago, he was on the cutting edge of major changes in his native city. Mr. Owen, who died Monday at the age of 79, had the vision then to see a connection between a healthy business economy throughout the region and a stable center city supported with money to buttress new and improved housing. And he had the influence and respect to win the support of others who could help make good things happen here.
As president, board chairman and later director emeritus of what is now the Perpetual American Federal Savings and Loan Association, Mr. Owen showed intense interest in all sections of the region and thus contributed significantly to the growth of this financial enterprise. Perpetual is the largest savings and loan institution in the area and one of the largest in the country. Over the years, it won a reputation as a lender throughout the city, without racial discrimination.
To Mr. Owen, it was merely practical business, to be tended to with the help of existing government programs. His message to other leaders of local financial institutions was put just that way; he would warn them not to "build an iron curtain surrounding the city." Instead, Mr. Owen called for the creation of corporations and other jointly financed ventures by savings and loan associations to rebuild the city's blighted areas. His message was directed not only to in-city colleagues but also to those in the suburbs. "The boundary lines separating the District from Virginia and Maryland are simply lines on a map," he would note, "and mean nothing when the economic forces that govern our community come into play."
The words were backed by deeds, too. Through a subsidiary, Perpetual was out front in the 1970s with construction of new single-family town houses in the Shaw area--the first unsubsidized homes to be built there in 20 years. "Whether we like it or not," he once told a meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Savings and Loan League, "the inner city is basically black while the outer city is basically white. . . . If we are going to solve these problems we must work more closely with the people who reside in the inner city."
It was this work, with the board of trade, with dozens of civic organizations and with charities throughout the region, that won him countless awards for local service. Straightforward, unusually accessible and able to recognize the growth, power and meaning of local government, Mr. Owen always worked with concern for the future of Washington --and the yields have been tangible and great.