What Do "Prettiest Teacher in U.S.," James Bonham Elementary, Candy Barr, Watergate and SMU Death Penalty Have in Common? This.

Amidst all the ruckus over the Dallas Independent School District board's more-than-likely decision to close James B. Bonham Elementary, one thing's been overlooked: Its storied past as The School Where The Prettiest U.S. School Teacher once taught. That's a certifiable fact: In December 1952 speech teacher Nell Owen was named "Prettiest U.S. School Teacher" in a contest sponsored by CBS and announced during the prime-time radio broadcast of Our Miss Brooks on December 21, 1952 (during the "Magic Christmas Tree" episode, to be specific, which you can listen to here sans the hullabaloo). Why, she even made it onto the cover of Life magazine, where she was the subject of a lengthy and flattering profile that described her "as durable as she is fetching."

I didn't know anything about this forgotten footnote till Friend of Unfair Park PeterK dispatched the heads-up that there's an original United Press photo of Owen for sale on eBay. No one has yet submitted a bid with five hours left; it's all of $9.99. And because that's what we do -- Peter especially, his having logged many hours as a researcher at the Dallas Public Library years ago -- we discovered there's more, much more, to her tale. For instance ...

Here, from the Life spread, is a photo of Nell and her husband, one George Washington Owen Jr., ringing in the new year following The Big Announcement. They were married at Highland Park Methodist Church in June 1951, when then-Nell McGrew of Rotan (outside Abilene) and George, who'd graduated from Crozier Tech, were seniors at SMU. A year later Nell won her award. But in years to come, Owen would become infamous. As Doug Bedell summed it up in his December 7, 1986, sit-down with Owen, who refused to mention first wife Nell and those who followed:

In the late 1950s, Owen was the mysterious boyfriend of Candy Barr and narrowly avoided going to jail when Dallas police arrested the famed stripper for possession of marijuana. In the '60s, the former SMU athlete survived the acrimonious crash of his marriage to a stewardess named Maureen Kane, who would later become Maureen Dean, wife of Watergate defendant John Dean. "Mo" would essentially come to accuse Owen of bigamy.

And in the '70s, there was an inconclusive federal grand jury investigation into a Dallas-Las Vegas gambling link about which Owen was questioned. In August 1985, George Owen was banned by the NCAA from any involvement with SMU athletics. Last month, The Dallas Morning News reported that Owen had provided a rent-free apartment to Albert Reese, a current SMU football player.
Concerning his involvement with his alma mater, Owen's name is all over the 1987 Bishops' Committee Report on SMU that details the events leading to the NCAA handing down the death penalty. He died on July 21, 2000. Nell, who married a man named Pete Johnson in 1967, died nine years later. Said her obituary, which mentions the former model's flirtation with fame and her decision to give up the glamorous life for teaching in the DISD: "Nell was a beautiful person, quick-witted and fiercely loyal." Both she and George are buried at Restland.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky