A PASSION FOR ACTION: Executive director of the Environmental Defense Center for nine years, Owen Bailey had an exceptional ability to deliver a message and rally people to a cause. | Credit: Laurie Bailey

In Memoriam | Owen Bailey: 1968-2022

There is an Owen Bailey–sized hole in our community.

Owen, the Environmental Defense Center’s executive director for nine years, died June 24 at his home in Goleta after a long battle with cancer. He left behind a community that loved him and a planet he was working desperately to protect.

On June 5, 2022, Owen stood before the crowd at EDC’s annual Green & Blue celebration, face alight, voice hoarse but strong. Days before, his breathing had become more labored from years of cancer treatments. But he found the strength to speak with clarity and conviction, offering gratitude for EDC’s work and one last impassioned plea for more.

Owen was born into his environmental passion. In his early years in rural Connecticut, he was surrounded by recovering forest — second-growth trees and scrub, with all their attendant wildlife, reclaiming what had long been pastureland. He attended the University of Connecticut, where he met his wife, Laurie. The two spent their early twenties embracing art, travel, and adventure in New York City, followed by a year for Owen in London immersing himself in English history and Shakespeare. The two finally settled in Los Angeles, where Owen realized he most wanted to make a difference through advocacy. He started as a volunteer with the Sierra Club, but — quickly recognized for his exceptional ability to deliver a message and rally people to a cause — was brought on staff, finishing his tenure there as Southwest Advancement Director.

Owen moved to Santa Barbara to become EDC’s executive director in 2013, recruited due to his work to protect Oceano Dunes and Hearst Ranch, and to defeat a proposed liquid natural gas project off-shore Oxnard. He brought the same passion and skill to EDC.

When Owen spoke, you believed; he knew how to tell EDC’s story to inspire action. When he acted, change happened. He fought to stop dangerous oil trains and to prevent construction of a new fossil-fuel-powered plant in coastal Oxnard. When the Refugio pipeline ruptured, Owen was one of the first on the scene to document the failed response by Plains All American Pipeline. Owen soon became a trusted leader across a range of issues — if you wanted a smart, strategic approach, Owen was The Guy. It didn’t hurt that he had also worked for Senator Barbara Boxer on her 2008 campaign. Owen “got” politics: He was a savvy analyst, a brilliant strategic thinker, and a problem solver.

Owen’s integrity was unassailable. Whether it was community leaders; EDC Board, staff, and donors; or activists at large, everyone knew that Owen would tell you the truth — as kindly as he could, because he was also hugely compassionate. If you knew Owen, you trusted him.

Even better: Owen did all of this while being endlessly funny. No pun went unsaid. No pop culture reference was unmade. No argument about who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays was overlooked. To work with Owen was to be committed to serious change while having serious fun.

Wife Laurie, son Ben, and daughter Nicola were privileged to inhabit his joyful and wacky world. They were gleeful participants to what Laurie described as a never-ending sketch comedy routine: with Owen at a Christmas tree farm, for instance, suddenly announcing in a menacing growl that he was inspecting the trees for termites. Owen was devoted to his family, especially Ben and Nicola. When Ben was small, he was obsessed with buses, so Owen would spend Saturdays riding the Orange line back and forth, just for Ben. Later, when Nicola was in 2nd grade, Owen introduced her to The West Wing and a mutual passion was born — the two watched the entire series, Owen schooling young Nicola along the way about the nuances of modern-day politics — undoubtedly setting the stage for her future as an activist. 

Owen was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, learning that it was metastatic in 2019. Characteristically open about his condition, he channeled his energy into poetry and other writings to help educate on cancer, to provide an outlet for himself and support for fellow cancer patients and their families.

Ever upbeat after the most discouraging news, he was, in the end, accepting. “I have had a wonderful life,” he wrote, little more than three months ago. “I am so privileged to live under one roof with the three people I love most in the world. My children are young adults, and they are kind, creative, intelligent, and loving human beings. I have spent 30 years loving and living with my very best friend in the world, and she has consistently made me better, happier, and inspired me to want to do more.”

In addition to Laurie, Benjamin, and Nicola, Owen is survived by his brothers, Martin, Hugh, and David; and his parents, Patricia Palmer and David O. Bailey.

Memorial ceremonies for Owen will be held August 7 at 2 p.m. at Godric Grove at Elings Park. 


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