This article originally appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Harker Magazine.
Judge John Byron Owens MS ’85 earned his first paycheck, for $180, from Harker in 1985. He rode his bike from Cupertino to campus every day that summer to work as a camp counselor. It was the beginning of a journey distinguished by hard work, intellect and honor.
“No one at Harker is surprised by John’s success,” said Pat Walsh, Owens’ fifth grade teacher. “It’s not just that he’s brilliant, which he is, but that he’s filled with integrity.”
Owens, who attended Harker from grades 3-8, has remained in touch with Walsh. In 2014, Owens even invited Walsh to his swearing-in ceremony as a Circuit Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Before being nominated by President Barack Obama, Owens had a successful career as an attorney, served as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and graduated first in his class at Stanford Law School. All these successes came with a lot of hard work, one of Owens’ core values, along with honesty and kindness.
“There is no substitute for hard work, especially when you are in high school and college. Hard work now makes the rest of your life much easier,” is advice he has shared with Harker students in the past and regularly shares with his two daughters.
And Owens definitely walks the talk. Last season he coached his eldest daughter’s club basketball team, which made the playoffs. He stressed to the team to work hard at practice but also at home on shooting and dribbling. He realized that a coach cannot ask his players to work hard if he also isn’t willing to put in the time, so he spent hours reviewing game films and statistics, and designed a new offense for the team. They won both playoff games by nearly 20 points.
“So it may seem crazy – a federal judge is spending hours watching youth basketball games – but it was an important lesson for our players and especially my oldest daughter to understand that success only happens through hard work,” said Owens. “It is not fair to have hard-working players led by an unprepared coach.”
Owens has always loved sports and even worked as a marketing assistant for the Golden State Warriors when he was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. But his love of the law prevailed. His law career includes serving as an assistant U.S. attorney for both the central and southern districts of California, as well as a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.
Owens, a big science fiction fan, was lauded by “Above the Law” for “nerding out.” The legal website referenced Lone Star Security & Video v. City of Los Angeles, where he incorporated “a Monopoly analogy and a reference to ‘The Twilight Zone’ to urge the Supreme Court to reconsider its holdings.” Other opinions have referenced “Game of Thrones,” “Star Trek” and the horror movie “The Thing.”
His lighter, nerdier side often peeks through when he returns to Harker, from sharing his experience as a judge with third graders to discussing honors and ethics with upper school students. He earned the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2007 and serves on Harker’s Board of Trustees.
“He is well-respected regardless of his role on campus,” said Sarah Leonard, Owens’ third grade teacher and now primary division head. “He has a wonderful way with the third grade students, really driving home his message about hard work, determination, setting goals and perseverance, but he does so in a manner that captures the children’s attention and holds them almost spellbound.“
Owens and his family live in San Diego. In their free time, they enjoy going to the boxing gym on Saturday mornings, where they hit the bags while the youngest takes karate. A perfect day would include a 5-mile run for Owens, followed by a relaxing afternoon and watching the Warriors play in the evening (he’s still a big fan).
Owens values time with his family and, when asked what his proudest accomplishment was, he replied, “That’s easy – my two girls. They both learned at an early age from my wife and me that success in life – academics, sports, the arts – requires hard work.”
Contributor Vikki Bowes-Mok is also the executive director of the community nonprofit Compass Collective.