After more than 50 years of social crusading in Ventura's grittiest neighborhood, Mabel Owen is sitting out a fight.
It's her kind of fight too: Local leaders and the state of California are wringing their hands over where they want a new state university campus for Ventura and the most-discussed possibility is Taylor Ranch, just northwest of Owen's own back yard.
But time does its work and Owen now mostly keeps to the comforts of her modest home on Simpson Street, half a block from Ventura Avenue. There, she strokes her unnamed calico cat, considers past battles and wrestles with her memory.
"I'm 88 years old," she said the other day. At one point she said she doesn't care what officials do with Taylor Ranch " . . . as long as they don't put cattle up there. Students, I don't mind."
But in the same conversation, Owen made it clear that she does still care, that she personally favors the university. But there are limits to what she can do. When Owen gets out into the community these days, it's usually for a bus trip to Burger King. Her nephew has arranged for the county Meals on Wheels people to bring food around for her. She uses a cane to descend the two steps from her front porch and she hasn't driven for more than a year.
"She deserves a rest," said City Councilman Jim Monahan, an Owen ally in avenue projects for more than 30 years.
"Old soldiers--even MacArthurs, Eisenhowers and Mabel Owens--they have to pull to the sidelines sometime," the Rev. Luther McCurtis said recently. "She ate, drank and slept the avenue."
"We'll always thank her and remember her the rest of our lives," said Oracia R. McCurtis, the minister's wife.
By all accounts, Owen is the most active advocate Ventura Avenue has ever seen. In the early 1960s, she led the fund raising for the McCurtises' Pentecostal Ventura Church of God in Christ on the avenue, though she is a Methodist. Later, she fought successfully to establish a new senior center.
Later still, she lobbied hard and long for a new supermarket and strip mall at Ventura Avenue and Main Street, the gateway to her economically beleaguered neighborhood. The Mission Plaza Shopping Center opened in 1984.
"That shopping center--I worked hard to get that," Owen said. "That was a bad, bad section of town."
And when it comes to Taylor Ranch, Owen has a history that stretches back further yet. In about 1936, ranchers were running cattle on the property and Owen was among the disgruntled neighbors downwind.
"The smell was terrible. I had to fight to get cows off there," she said. "I think that's what started me in politics."
Today, she said, Ventura Avenue seems a happier, more prosperous place than it was 10 years ago. Though its population has been substantially changed by the influx of Latino families over the years, she said, "people are people."
The walls of Owen's modest Mediterranean Revival house are crowded with keepsakes and commendations: the Ventura Jaycees Citizen of the Year award from 1984, for instance, and a proclamation on "the public spirit of Mabel Owen" that was entered into the Congressional Record nine years ago by Rep. Robert Lagomarsino (R-Ventura). There is also the tinted photo of her and her late husband in the 1930s and a plaque above the armchair bearing "A Prayer for Those Who Live Alone."
The house itself is now Ventura's Historic Landmark No. 76, so designated by the City Council in December, 1989. The yard remains as neat as a pin.
"She's a great neighbor," said Coleen Ashly, who has lived next door to Owen for more than two years. "She takes care of our dog when we're away. And she runs off the neighborhood kids when they get into our yard."
Owen and her husband arrived in Ventura 60 years ago, when many of the principal streets were unpaved and shoppers tied up their horses outside some Main Street businesses.
She was the former Mabel Shaw, an office worker born in Kansas, raised in California's San Joaquin Valley, and trained in the ways of the comptometer, a typewriter-like bookkeeping machine. Her husband was Harvey E. Owen, a professional musician who played the trumpet in a band maintained by Shell Oil.
"So there we were," Owen said. "I got a job in the county courthouse and I went from office to office as a comptometer operator."
From the beginning, they lived along the avenue, a blue-collar neighborhood built for the oil workers who had arrived during the boom of the 1920s. And from the beginning, Owen had causes.
The Taylor Ranch stink was one, and the creation of the Ventura Avenue Improvement Assn., which lobbied for improved public services, was another. The creation of a 30-year plan for the neighborhood was a third. That project, undertaken in the late 1950s, was Jim Monahan's introduction to the forthright woman from Simpson Street.
"Mabel is very demanding," Monahan said. "When she made up her mind on an issue, and she'd bite down on it, you could bet it would be concluded the way she wanted it."