Charlotte Plummer Owen, 1918–2004

Mrs. Owen

I spent most of the afternoon at this woman’s memorial service. Mrs. Owen was my clarinet teacher. She taught me everything, starting with how to put the instrument together. “It’s been a long time since I’ve started from scratch,” I remember her saying at my very first lesson. She was a great teacher. Her students all got ones at Solo & Ensemble, and I was not the only one to win scholarships to music camp.

I wish I had known then what a remarkable woman she was. I knew vaguely that she had been in the U.S. Marine Band. In fact, I learned today, she was the conductor of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band during World War II. There is no such band anymore; it existed only during that war. The band was formed so that the (male) members of the regular U.S. Marine Band could go off to fight. The Women’s Reserve Band played all over the country. They played for President Roosevelt and Admiral Chester Nimitz. Mrs. Owen was also the first woman to guest-conduct the all-male Marine Band. And here’s how she met her husband, to quote from the program at the service: “In 1945, Charlotte married Charles Owen, one of the three Principal Musicians of the US Marine Corps Band who had been sent to Camp Lejeune to help the women’s band get started.” A matter-of-fact sentence, but can’t you just imagine the romance? And here’s another thing: she turned down an officer’s commission because she wanted to continue living in the barracks with her sisters in the band. Someone ought to write a screenplay.

However, what I really wanted to write about, though my feeble words will never do it justice, is the actual memorial service. I doubt in my life I’ll ever experience anything like this again. It was long, over 2 hours, and part of the reason was because the last half of the service was, to quote again from the program, a “Marine Corps Ritual.” There were a bunch of Marines, some of whom had driven over an hour to get there. They were mostly older guys. I saw at least one WWII veteran’s license plate in the parking lot. And they were in uniform: red coats, bars and medals, bright blue pants with a red stripe, the little hats. After the Marine Chaplain read the 23rd psalm and spoke a bit, it was time for the Marines to (again quoting) “Pay Last Respects.”

What did this mean? Instead of a center aisle, the church was set up with two aisles down the sides. The Marines were lined up on each side. Two by two, they marched to the center where there was a table set up with flowers and photos of Mrs. Owen where a coffin would normally be. In perfect unison, they did the heel-click turn to face the photos and then in slow motion, saluted. Can I possibly convey to you the effect of these slow-motion salutes? It was like in those parades where there’s a horse with backwards-facing boots in the stirrups. Or when the fighter planes fly over in formation and one peels away. They were truly “paying last respects.”

Then two Marines unfolded the flag that was lying on the table with the photos. They held it up during the 21-gun salute. I said, the 21-gun salute. Just outside the church—and did I mention the weather? middle of a Michigan snowstorm—there were seven guys who shot three times. We couldn’t see them, but we could hear the commands: ready, aim, fire! I believe this was the first time in my life I’ve ever heard actual gunshots in real life. Then a bugler played Taps.

Next thing on the program: “Present Colors to Daughter.” They folded the flag back up into the triangle, just like in the movies, and presented it to her the way they do, holding it horizontally between the palms of their hands. They presented it to her on behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, and the Washtenaw County Chapter of something-or-other. Then they saluted her, the daughter.

Finally, a bagpiper came through playing “Amazing Grace” and the “Marine Corps Hymn.” This afforded me a little comic relief, as I couldn’t help remembering a joke my son told me the other day. “Q: Why do bagpipers always walk while they play?” “A: To get away from the awful noise.” But this bagpiper was terrific. I think he was also a Marine.

This military stuff is not something I’m used to. There are no vets in my family of origin. We’re a bunch of liberal pacifist types (though we tend to be hawkish on the subject of Israel). As I mentioned before, I’d never even heard a real live gunshot before. But especially considering that I hadn’t seen this woman, or even though of her very often, since I was a teenager, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a more moving and beautiful memorial service.


  • Nice account. You made me all teary. My mother desperately wanted me to be in the military, which was the farthest thing from what I wanted to do. But anytime I have seen a military funeral on T.V. I find myself thinking that they certainly know how to do that ritual right.

    posted by Blogger doulicia on 11:29 AM  

  • Why a 21 gun salute? Why not 20? Or 15? I'm going to have to learn the answer to that question.

    May your teacher now rest in peace--especially after the salute. (Those guns are loud!)

    posted by Blogger mrsd on 3:55 PM  

  • What a lovely description and what a legacy the woman left behind!
    Thanks for sharing.

    posted by Blogger GuusjeM on 6:48 PM  

  • Mrsd, here is the answer to your question. I'm glad you asked. I had been wondering the same thing.

    I also had another thought about why this ceremony was so cool. Most people who get these military honors get it (I assume) for valor in battle. But she got it for MUSIC.

    posted by Blogger Julie on 7:28 PM  

  • 'The use of gun salutes for military occasions is traced to early warriors who demonstrated their peaceful intentions by placing their weapons in a position that rendered them ineffective.'

    It's a symbol of laying down weapons and fighting no more. Thanks for the link. Now, I can bore/amuse/enlighten my friends with the details. :)

    posted by Blogger mrsd on 8:02 PM  

  • Wonderful tribute to her! I've attended 2 military funerals at Arlington National Cemetary. I readily admit the both times I was simultaneously in awe and very shaken by the weapons and gunshots. (I was an adult both times, too.) The other parts of the funeral were very interesting and as memorable as I'm sure this woman is to you.

    posted by Blogger Green-Eyed Lady(GEL) on 12:42 AM  

  • Marines never do anything half-way, especially when it comes to their traditions and rituals.

    My stepbrother was a marine. Their ceremonies are so beautiful to watch.

    Thank you for sharing your story, and I agree, someone really should write a screen play. What a wonderful romantic historical it would make.

    posted by Blogger Sleeping Mommy on 12:47 PM  

  • Charlotte Owen was my clarinet teacher also, from 1962-1967. I did a search a few years ago and found out she had passed away. I was remembering how much she taught me on clarinet and what a privilege that had been for me.

    In 2005 I posted some comments about her at a music site that I belong to:;showtopic=17890

    And yes, she was a great teacher.

    Jack (Dadai.2)

    posted by Blogger Jack on 3:30 PM  

  • I just came upon this posting, 11 years late, and I thank you for it. Mrs. Owen was my clarinet teacher when I was in high school in the late 50's. She gave me a sound foundation and coached me, gently but firmly, through my preparation for performing K622 at my graduation. She was bemused by my desire to play jazz, but the technical basis she gave made that possible. And I'm still playing!

    posted by Blogger Le Vieux on 9:23 AM