Clay Owen, '82: Turning Tragedy into Hope
Clay Owen experienced the worst sort of tragedy a parent can face—the loss of a child. Now he is turning that tragedy into triumph by becoming a determined fundraiser to prevent such tragedies from hitting other families. Proving there truly are no limits to how your alma mater can serve you, coaches from the University of South Carolina athletics department are lending their support, and alumni can do the same.
“My wife, Grainne Owen, and I lost our nine-year-old son Killian to leukemia in 2003,” Clay says. “About a year after his death, my wife created the charity Curing Kids Cancer. We felt like we could not sit back and watch other children die from cancer, knowing that lifesaving drugs were stuck in the labs because the doctors weren’t getting the money they needed. We were determined to raise money that would benefit pediatric cancer research and get those drugs to the children who needed them so desperately. Since we created the charity, we have raised more than $2 million for childhood cancer research.”
Clay has helped organize “Battle Kids’ Cancer with the Gamecocks,” a luncheon to benefit childhood cancer research, to take place on Thursday, November 8, 2012, in Columbia. The event leads directly into weekend Homecoming activities at Carolina. Athletics director Ray Tanner, head baseball coach Chad Holbrook, women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley and former All-American pitcher Michael Roth will be among the guests at the event. Proceeds benefit Palmetto Health Children's Hospital Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.
Commitment to the Cure
Clay hopes this luncheon will become an annual event that kicks off Homecoming week. It is by no means the only event with which he has been involved to find a cure. Curing Kids Cancer hosts a large golf tournament in Atlanta every year. Recent headliners for that event include ESPN’s Lee Corso, Atlanta Braves closer and National League Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel and other special guests. The 2012 tournament raised $250,000. The organization also held a luncheon with Craig Kimbrel over the summer.
Getting some assistance from his alma mater was a no-brainer, and his wife, Grainne, made the first pitch to then-coach Tanner right on the baseball field.
“About four years ago, my nephew was attending a Ray Tanner baseball camp in Columbia, and my wife went along to watch,” Clay explains. “After the practice, she raced onto the field and grabbed Coach Tanner and asked for his help with the charity. Being the man Ray Tanner is, he said yes. Coach Tanner has helped our charity since that time. When we last presented a check to Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital with Ray Tanner and Chad Holbrook, we floated the idea of holding a luncheon. Both coaches loved the idea.”
Bill McDonald, the Gamecocks’ head golf coach, has been working with the charity for about four years, as well. He conducts a clinic at the annual golf tournament.
“He jumped on board within minutes of receiving my email,” Clay says, "and then an old friend who is a nurse at Palmetto Health introduced us to Dawn Staley. We met with Coach Staley, and she immediately agreed to help. Michael Roth came on board after Coach Tanner’s assistant reached out to him.”
Clay adds that the most humbling aspect of creating this event is the willingness of all of these coaches and athletes to help.
“Not only are they winners on their respective fields of competition, they are true leaders that our kids and fans can look up to,” Clay says. “You have no idea how much the participation of these coaches means to me and to my family. We are truly blessed to have these coaches representing our university.”
With childhood cancer being the number-one pediatric killer disease in the United States, raising money and awareness for cancer research is always needed. So even if you are not in Columbia, you can make a contribution to the cause by going to www.curingkidscancer.org and click on the “Battle Kids’ Cancer with the Gamecocks” banner.
Nine-year-old Killian Owen was the first child to try an experimental leukemia treatment that was showing promise in adults. Unfortunately, the chance came too late. But Killian left an important legacy, as scientists used his preserved cells to help develop a second generation of the drug Killian pioneered, which was much more effective. Thanks to Killian, this drug is now in treatment and is putting children into complete remission, thus providing hope for a cure for other children desperate for new options. This was a groundbreaking moment for other children with cancer.
“After we lost our son Killian to cancer, we had to take action,” Clay says. “He went through extremely harsh chemotherapy treatments, radiation, a bone marrow transplant and even cutting-edge treatment at the National Cancer Institute. We had to do something in order to save the lives of other children.”
When Killian was being treated at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, he got a phone call one day from the head coach of the Washington Redskins to wish him the best. The Redskins' coach at the time, of course, was Steve Spurrier.
Never a Doubt about Carolina
Clay Owen grew up in the small town of North, SC, about 30 miles south of Columbia. His father was the town pharmacist and had graduated from South Carolina in 1958. There was never any question where he was going to go to college.
“I actually entered Carolina with plans to become a minister and thought that journalism would be a great way to improve my communication skills,” Clay says. “Along the way, I fell in love with journalism. That road led me to become a senior producer with CNN and allowed me to live abroad and cover major stories on location like Princess Diana’s funeral, G-7 and G-8 Economic Summits, European Union Summits and the World Economic Forum.”
Prior to those worldly adventures, Clay enjoyed his many adventures and memories on campus.
“Some of my best memories of my days on campus include watching my friend wrestle a bear at the mall, tailgating and football with my friends from the seventh floor of Moore, basketball games with Coach Frank McGuire at the helm of the team, the World Famous Third Base Hecklers, walks around the Horseshoe, movies at the Russell House and the Nickelodeon, and, believe it or not, studying deep on the lower levels of Thomas Cooper Library,” Clay says.
Clay claims that several of his professors are now legends within the Owen house, especially professor Charles Coolidge, who taught European and British History.
“His lectures were brilliant and filled with the passion of an evangelical minister,” Clay recalls. “As he would reach the high point of his lecture, he would stop and exclaim, ‘Ho, Ho, you may say!' and the entire class would echo in unison, ‘Ho, Ho.’ Within the College of Journalism, Lee Dudek, Jay Latham and Rick Uray all become close friends and mentors to me during my senior year.”
A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Clay also spent time producing the daily noon news for the campus radio station, WUSC; served as a legislative page at the South Carolina House of Representatives; and participated in an exchange program with the University of Kent, in Canterbury, England, during his junior year.
Off into the World
After earning his broadcasting degree from the College of Mass Communications in 1982, Clay put his education to good use.
“My first real job after graduation was reporting at The Times and Democrat newspaper in Orangeburg,” Clay says. “I also worked as a reporter for WIS-TV news in Columbia and as a reporter at The State newspaper. I then went to graduate school at the University of Kent at Canterbury, England, where I picked up an MA in international relations, as well as a beautiful wife. We stayed in England for almost 10 years, during which I worked at CNN’s London Bureau.”
Clay left journalism about 15 years ago to work in public relations for BellSouth. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, BellSouth Mobility transitioned into Cingular Wireless, which turned into AT&T. He is now director of communications at AT&T in Atlanta.
“I get to use all of the skills I learned at USC in my work career,” Clay says. “In my role at AT&T, I write newsletters, speeches, produce videos, shoot still photos, and organize trade shows. I get to attend some of the coolest trade shows on the planet, like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I also get a lot of cool cell phones and tablets to play with.”
Clay and Grainne Owen, whom he met while studying for his MA at the University of Kent, have been married for 25 years and have three children: Pierce, Garrett, and Finnian. Pierce is a junior international business major at Carolina and Lieber and Cooper Scholarship winner, while Garrett is a freshman at the university studying visual communications and is a Woodrow Scholarship and Alumni Association Legacy Scholarship recipient. Finnian Owen is a high-school sophomore in Marietta, GA.
Clay is a football season ticket holder and enjoys returning to campus to visit his children. He is also very involved with the College of Mass Communications, as he and Dean Charles Bierbauer were colleagues at CNN. Clay was named as one of his school’s distinguished alumni last year.