Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former congressman Wayne Owens, a Democrat who bucked Utah conservatism and spent decades advocating for peace in the Middle East, died of a massive heart attack Wednesday on an Israel beach. He was 65.
Owens served four terms in the U.S. House and helped launch the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, a Washington-based group dedicated to fostering peace in the troubled region.
His body was found on a beach in Tel Aviv at about 9 p.m. local time Wednesday, according to Stuart Patt, spokesman for the State Department's Consular Affairs Bureau.
Owens suffered a massive heart attack while walking along the ocean. He was about to return to the U.S. after a visit with leaders of several countries in the region, said Sara Ehrman, senior adviser at the peace center.
"He had packed, ready to come home, the night before last and his favorite thing to do in Tel Aviv was to walk on the beach," she said. "He'd say, 'I'm a child of the desert and I love to see the ocean."'
His body is expected to be returned to the U.S. Thursday evening, Patt said. A funeral is expected early next week, Ehrman said.
"What Wayne Owens did was change people's lives. He did it in so many ways. He was dedicated to public service," said University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless, who interned for Owens in the spring of 1973 and later worked on his campaign. "He changed my life. It's a great loss."
In Congress, Owens, a native of Panguitch, Utah, fought to protect Utah wildlands, sponsoring legislation to designate more than 5 million acres of the state as wilderness. The efforts riled Utah conservatives.
His bill to compensate so-called "downwinders" -- victims of radioactive fallout from open-air nuclear weapons tests in Nevada -- was signed into law in 1990.
And he used his seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to advocate for peace in the Middle East and direct negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
He was first elected in 1972 after walking across the Republican district, which covered nearly half the state. He served as a member of the House Judiciary Committee where he voted to impeach President Nixon and was part of a group of Democrats who forced a vote to end the Vietnam War.
He lost a bid for Senate in 1974 to Republican Jake Garn and made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1984. In 1986, he regained Utah's 2nd District seat, which he held until 1992, when he again ran for Senate, losing to Republican Bob Bennett.
Owens helped launch the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation in 1989 and spent much of the last decade traveling in the region. His office near the White House features numerous photographs of Owens with nearly every leader in the region, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, various Israeli prime ministers, and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
"He never ever lost his deep faith that there would be a reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians and he would live side by side in peace and he died trying to make it happen," said Ehrman.
On his final trip to the region, Owens had met with Syrian president Bashir al-Asad, Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon and other leaders.
Rep. Jim Matheson said he was "very shocked" to hear of Owens' death.
Matheson, who ran Owens' campaign for governor in 1984, said Owens served as a political mentor to his whole family.
"I think that's true for a lot of people in public service," Matheson said. "The first memory I have of a campaign in Utah was when he walked the state in 1972. He brought a certain energy and enthusiasm to politics."
Bennett recalled that he and Owens lunched together after their campaigns against each other in 1992.
"Our friendship was temporarily interrupted for our Senate campaign in 1992 after which we went to lunch, buried the hatchet and have enjoyed a very cordial relationship ever since.
"His work in the Middle East has been driven by the highest motives and he'll be sorely missed."
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called Owens' death "a real tragedy. Wayne Owens was a dedicated public servant, tireless advocate for Utah and a real friend. ... I always appreciated his hard work and commitment to our state."
At the Utah Capitol Wednesday, where state lawmakers were meeting to plug a huge budget gap, Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, was visibly shaken by the news.
"Wayne was a public servant. He cared about the people of Utah, the people of the nation and about finding a solution to the problems in the Middle East," she said.
Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake City, also was shocked. "He was a bright, energetic person. He just seemed to be made for politics," Becker said.
Starting in 1965, Owens worked as a staffer for Utah Sen. Frank Moss and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy. He was also the Rocky Mountain coordinator for Robert Kennedy's presidential bid. He spent six years as a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He and his wife Marlene have five children and eight grandchildren.
"One time when I was on the campaign trail with him in 1974, I asked him when he was growing up what he hoped to do," Chambless said. "He looked at me, looked away and looked at me again, and he said, 'Get out of Panguitch.' And he did. He got out of Panguitch."