James Neal Owens
June 13, 1929 – October 8, 2021
James Owens was the hub of his West Bloomfield-based family. He also was an entrepreneur before digital technology turned that once-gritty profession into a fashionable buzzword.
On Friday, Owens passed away at his home on Middle Straits Lake. He was 92 and had been married to his wife, Connie, for 66 years.
“He will be greatly missed for his wisdom and resourcefulness; his profound loves of water, birds, classical music, and football, and for his financial savvy,” his daughter, Betsy LaVela, wrote in a Facebook post.
Owens found business success in an earlier technology boom: plastics. In the late 1950’s, he joined two partners to found a small auto parts company in what was then the sparsely-populated countryside of Commerce Township. That company, Molmec, at one point employed hundreds of people in Michigan.
Owens was tremendously proud of creating those jobs and helping to support so many families. The company has since been sold several times, folded into larger parts manufacturers. When Molmec initially was sold in 1997, years after Owens’ retirement, the company boasted 5 plants, 48 presses and $85 million in sales.
Molmec was founded by and named after three close friends who met one summer in Wilmington at Dupont: Owens and his partners Bob Leland and Larry Miller, both graduates of the University of Michigan. The company began in a garage in Redford Township and then moved into a small factory on Martin Road in Commerce to mold plastic parts, such as fasteners for vehicles.
Owens specialized in managing Molmec’s finances, a critical role during the company’s lean start-up years. Owens was perhaps the most private of the three business partners. He did not enjoy small talk, and was often quite candid in his assessments.
Owens lived above a bakery in Knoxvillle, TN until his dad died when he was just 11 years old. At that point, Owens was taken in for a school year by an uncle who had sons of a similar age to enable Owens’ mother to land a job and get back on her feet. They were able to spend considerable time with his mother’s sisters in Charlotte, NC who made delicious banana pudding. Owens, whose older sister had been stillborn, was effectively an only child.
Owens developed a deep appreciation for self-reliance. He was sharp in school; during one of his moves he skipped a grade. He was valedictorian of the class of 1946 at Charlotte Central High School in Charlotte, North Carolina; he was business manager of the yearbook. As a young man, he lived and worked in the Sigma Chi fraternity house to pay bills as he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at North Carolina State University in 1950; he also served in the ROTC. Then Owens worked briefly as a chemical engineer at Dupont in Wilmington, Delaware, where he was in the Army Reserves. Soon, he was called into service as a 1st Lieutenant in the Army.
During the Korean Conflict, Owens managed munitions stocks, sometimes loading and delivering large quantities of explosives to troops in remote outposts. He was awarded a Korean service Medal with two bronze stars, plus a United Nations service medal.
Owens met his wife, nee Constance Ann (Connie) Cole, when he returned from the war and resumed working at Dupont. It was an office romance born out of his need to find a quiet lab in which he could draft his reports. Cole was a chemist on the Dupont staff, where her father was a more senior organic research chemist.
With the financial backing of Leland’s father, Owens and Miller decided to leave Dupont to start Molmec. The two moved to join Leland in Michigan where the skilled manufacturing labor force was large and where several of the Molmec partners had family ties. Michigan also was where the company’s future customers -- the auto manufacturers -- were headquartered.
The Owens family lived in a rambling house on a “point” in West Bloomfield’s Middle Straits Lake. With three sons and a daughter, the Owens family often loosely hosted a throng of neighborhood children as they played in the water and across the lawns and nearby Bloomer Park. In the winter, when the lake froze, the Owens family cleared snow from a patch of lake in front of their porch to create the neighborhood hockey rink.
As his children grew, James Owens encouraged them to earn top grades and to value hard work, thrift, honesty and independence. He enlisted his children in various home improvement projects, as well as the annual cherry harvest and subsequent pitting operation. To teach the youngsters about chemistry, Owens helped his children make and bottle their own root beer. Owens sometimes built toys for his children, such as a marble track. Once, when Molmec landed Lego as a customer, the Owens children tested a batch of Lego’s blocks that were not uniformly colored.
Over the years, Owens served the community in many ways - as a member of the board of the Middle Straits Lake Improvement Association, as a Boy Scout assistant troop leader, as a member of the Civil Air Patrol (he had a pilot’s license), as a member of the Flying Club out of Wixom airport, and as a member of the Walled Lake School Board (1974-75).
Owens sold his share of Molmec and retired in his early 60’s to a small condo in Texas, which he purchased following the savings-and-loan collapse of the late 1980s. Owens kept his home on Middle Straits Lake, summering there for many years. The Owens family hosted many famous 4th of July barbeques, capped by fireworks viewing over the lake. In recent years, Owens and his wife returned to full-time residence at Middle Straits Lake, where they enjoyed watching sunrises, swans, great blue herons, and geese.
Owens is survived by his wife, Connie Owens, of West Bloomfield; daughter Elizabeth (Betsy) LaVela (Joseph) of West Bloomfield; son John Owens (Emilia) of Genoa Twp.; son Christopher Owens(Jeannine) of Brentwood TN; plus six grandchildren: Katherine (Casey) LaVela of Madison, WI; James LaVela (Shirley Xue) of Brooklyn, NY; Bryce Owens of Ann Arbor, MI; Leila Owens of Genoa Twp.; Michaela Owens of Memphis, TN; and Joe Owens of Brentwood, TN; plus brother-in-law John Elton (Rose) Cole of Carmel, IN; and one niece, one nephew and extended family members. He was preceded in death by son James S. Owens in 1992.
A celebration of Owens’ life is planned for Monday Oct. 18th at the Elton Black & Son Funeral home on Union Lake Road with a ‘masked’ visitation/reception from 4-8 pm. The funeral will be held in their chapel on Tuesday Oct. 19th at 11 am. He will be buried at Oakland Hills Memorial Gardens with a military presentation of the flag to honor his service in the Army.
4:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Elton Black & Son Funeral Home
Elton Black & Son Funeral Home
Burial with Military Honors
Oakland Hills Memorial Gardens
James Neal Owens
October 10, 2021
Fond memories of he and Connie visiting his cousin, and very special friend, my father Robert W. Boovy through the years. What a special bond they shared.