Profile: Person of the Year Robby Owens

LOSING DENISE

Robby, who grew up on a dairy farm in Helena, has deep family ties to Shelby County. The farmland where he grew up — and now makes his home — has been in the family since 1929, and his grandfather, Ned Bearden, donated some of that land to become the campus of Pelham High School.

Pelham High’s football stadium is named Ned Bearden Stadium in honor of his gift.

With roots that deep in the community, it’s no surprise that Robby chose to stay close to home for college, attending the University of Montevallo.

While he was there, he met Denise, who would become a schoolteacher and, eventually, his wife. The two dated for two years and then married.

Robby got a business degree from UM, then went to law school at night at the Birmingham School of Law to become a state prosecutor. He took his first prosecutor job, as an assistant DA in Jefferson County’s Bessemer office, in 1983.

“I thought I could be fair to people and help people who had been victims,” he said of his desire to be a prosecutor. “I’ve never had any regrets.”

After years working his way up the ladder in Bessemer and Shelby County, Robby was elected district attorney in Shelby County in 1992. He’s held the job since then.

Over 33 years of marriage, Robby and Denise raised two daughters, Christy and Lauren, and dealt with all the hills and valleys that come with a long marriage. The last obstacle they would face together, however, began in 2005.

In November 2005, Denise found a lump in her breast — one an earlier mammogram had missed. She had surgery within days, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, but the cancer eventually spread to her bones and, last, to her liver.

“If you catch (breast cancer early), you can kill it,” Robby said. “If you don’t, it’s trouble.”

In late 2007, Robby and Denise met with her oncologist, who said Denise likely had another two to three years to live. Robby decided to take her on a trip to Disney World, her favorite vacation spot and a special place for the two of them.

Although Denise would need a wheelchair to get around the park, Robby was committed to making sure she would have those memories. They traveled to Orlando and spent a few days enjoying Disney magic before reality struck with a vengeance.

After about three days at Disney, Robby and Denise noticed that her eyes had taken on a yellow tint — a sign that the cancer had spread to her liver. They immediately went back to Alabama and to the hospital. Days later, she passed away at the age of 56 — two years after the initial diagnosis.

“In some ways, I was very fortunate,” said Robby, looking back. “Our last week together was at Disney World.”

After Denise’s sudden death, Robby’s job became a way to cope with the grief.

“I went to work every day. The work was important to me. It was what kept me going,” he said. “After her funeral, I went back to work within a day or two.”

However, he needed help making important decisions, and came to rely more on his chief assistant district attorneys, Bill Bostick and Jill Lee.

“Part of grief can be disorientation and confusion,” Robby said.

That reliance on Bostick and Lee, and their increased responsibilities as a result, ended up benefiting all three of them — Bostick was appointed as the Shelby County Circuit Court judge by Gov. Robert Bentley in 2011, while Lee has spent the past few years being groomed to replace Robby when he retires.

Lee said although she took on more responsibility as Robby worked through his grief, he was still the unquestioned leader of the district attorney’s office.

“I know he feels like he wasn’t 100 percent, and no doubt he wasn’t — it was a horrible loss for him,” she said. “But he was still here. He was much more effective than he probably thought he was at that point in time. He remained the leader for sure.”

She wasn’t unnerved by the prospect of taking more on because Robby was as much a teacher as a leader, she said.

“One thing that he’s always emphasized in this office is bringing people along, and teaching new people new things,” she said. “Robby has been such a positive role model, I thought I was very well-equipped to take on more responsibility.”

Lee said when Robby worked through his grief, it made him even more adept at interacting with victims in the course of his job.

“He’s always been good interacting with victims. I would say now he is great, particularly in cases that involve death,” she said. “He really passionately feels that loss with them, with the crime victims.”

Lee said she learned her own lessons from Robby’s situation.

“You know, maybe I learned more about life than about death,” she said. “I have learned, I believe, to appreciate life while I’m living it and to appreciate those around me.”