Olga von Hartz Owens, career botanist and avid Chesapeake Bay sailor who built a sailboat in her backyard, dies

Olga von Hartz Owens, a career botanist, an accomplished landscaper and an avid sailor who built a sailboat in the backyard of her Ruxton home, died Jan. 3 at her Heron Point of Chestertown retirement community home of complications from a fall. She was 98.

Olga von Hartz Owens, the daughter of James Hamilton Owens, a veteran journalist who was the editor of The Evening Sun and later The Sun from 1938 to 1943, when he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Sunpapers, a position he held until 1956, was born in Baltimore.

Olga von Hartz Owens was a consummate world traveler and accomplished landscaper.

She was also the daughter of Olga von Hartz Owens, a homemaker after whom she was named. The daughter spent her early years in Lutherville before moving with her family to Riderwood.

Because H.L. Mencken had been not only a professional Sun colleague of her father’s but also a close, personal friend, she was able to observe the celebrated columnist, editor and author who was a frequent guest at her family’s Riderwood home.


A graduate of the Park School, Ms. Owens earned a bachelor’s degree in 1945 in botany from Bennington College in Vermont.

Ms. Owens did additional graduate studies at the University of Minnesota and Harvard University before obtaining a master’s degree in 1946 in botany from Connecticut College in New London, and her doctorate in the discipline in 1972 from the University of Maryland, College Park.

She held a series of positions with scientific institutions, including the then-Research Institute for Advanced Studies in Baltimore, where she was an associate research scientist in the bioscience group.

“I want to do something to help mankind,” Ms. Owens explained in a 1989 Sun interview.

Following her Ph.D., Ms. Owens became a grant administrator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, where she worked until retiring in the late 1990s, family members said.

Ms. Owens did not confine her work to the laboratory. She spent much of her free time exploring natural areas in the United States, an experience she often shared with family members, “but also on her own in an era when solo travel was relatively rare for single women,” according to a biographical profile submitted by her family.

She was a consummate world traveler and when she was in her 90s, made a trip to Italy after recovering from a broken hip.

A lifelong Chesapeake Bay sailor, Ms. Owens was an active member of the Severn River Sailing Association in Annapolis, where she was a leader in establishing the organization’s O’Day Sailer Fleet, and participated in races.


She was also the association’s first female board member, “another among many examples in her life and career where she was a trailblazer,” according to the biographical profile.

“She was in her 70s when she built a sailboat in the yard of her Ruxton home and later launched into Lake Roland,” said a nephew, John Gillespie, of Chestertown, “and raced it on the Severn River.”

Ms. Owens was an accomplished painter and continued painting well into her 90s, her nephew said.

“She painted entirely landscapes but she also did paintings of people which were Edward Hopper-like,” Mr. Gillespie said.

“When I moved to Heron Point, I was able to rekindle my enthusiasm for painting with the help of other artists,” Ms. Owens explained in a 2019 interview with the Kent County News. “I have attended workshops and taken classes and I continue to enjoy the challenge and the efforts involved.”

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Ms. Owens was also the driving force behind the establishment of an art studio at the Heron Point retirement community, where she settled in 1996.


“She was an exceptionally warm and outgoing person whose mind was always working all of the time. She was unmarried and had no children and in many ways was really a very private person,” said her nephew, who described his aunt as being “a very independent person.”

“She was always fixing things. If she needed something, she made it. For instance, she made her own furniture.”

Mr. Gillespie recalled as a child watching his aunt prepare for a solo hike.

“She had a backpack and other essentials and was getting ready to go hiking and camping by herself,” he said. “She was a very adventuresome woman.”

A memorial service is private.

In addition to Mr. Gillespie, Ms. Owens, who was the last of her five siblings, is survived by 11 other nieces and nephews, as well as grandnieces and grandnephews.