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Owen Woollis: 1951-2013

Nutritionist, Surfer, Philosopher


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Many longtime locals will remember Owen as the owner, along with Mary Lee, his late wife, of the Santa Barbara Nutrition Center, located at 15 East Figueroa Street from 1976 until the early 2000s. Prior to that, Owen had worked at Kayser’s, another stalwart in the Santa Barbara health-food scene. These mom-‘n’-pop stores preceded the big health-food chains we see today, and more than one local juice-and-smoothie bar has Owen to thank for its recipes!

Devoting himself to supplying the community with healthy food, nutritional supplements, and sage advice (with a dash of humor thrown in at appropriate times), Owen was there seven days a week, helping usher in the mainstream acceptance of vegetarianism and holistic healing.

Owen Woollis
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Courtesy Photo

Owen Woollis

Owen’s charm and charisma brought a rainbow of personalities to the Nutrition Center. I can remember, as a child, big parties breaking out after the Summer Solstice and Fiesta parades, and seeing all these free-spirited people dancing, singing, and playing music in our shop. In my eyes, Dad appeared to be a celebrity, with so many people gathered around him sharing in his joy!  I can remember health activist and local character Gypsy Boots playing the tambourine as he led the conga line — my father playing along with the festivities. This was Owen’s greatest pleasure: seeing people enjoying life and living free.

Born in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Owen spent his childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico, where he immersed himself in reading, sailing, and playing music. Graduating high school early, he found himself back in his native state, at the University of Iowa, studying philosophy. He met his wife, my mother, the beautiful Texas rose Mary Lee, at the university and took her back to Puerto Rico. Before marrying, they sailed around the Caribbean for a year.

He and Mary Lee moved to Santa Barbara to pursue Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation movement in the early 1970s. Owen was blissfully happy as he started a family of his own, surfed killer waves at Rincon, and worked to make people feel better. He started painting beautiful abstract canvases and played lots of music. Life for him was great, and it kept getting better. My parents had five children in all: Mary Victoria, Evan, Anna, Christopher, and Quentin, in that order, and we all worked and grew up in that store. Despite the hardships of running a business in Santa Barbara, he remained a dedicated husband and father.  I have a funny memory of asking my father to read me Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden when I was 9 years old — he picked up the book and began telling me a completely different story than the one I had been reading! I never really knew how to take that, but we laughed nonetheless.

In 1999, my mother, rather quickly, passed away from breast cancer, leaving friends and family devastated by the loss of such a beautiful soul.

Thus began a new chapter in my father’s life. He closed the business and sought new adventures. As we grew up and moved out, my father found a new love of life in hiking. He had more time now to explore nature, and he made a job of it. He became the spa manager of the Bacara Resort and would personally take guests on hiking trails throughout Santa Barbara County, discussing nature and philosophy.

Whether it was the ocean, a lake, or a pool, Owen loved the water and would always be ready to go in for a dip. Many people still come up to me and tell me of all the beautiful conversations they would have with my father in the hot tubs at the YMCA. He liked to talk about the paradoxes of life, transfers of energy, and cosmological knowledge. I always thought my father was brilliantly talented in leaving people perplexed, their conversations concluding with more questions than at the start.

My youngest brother, Quentin, was very close to my father and fortunate enough to spend the most time with him. As Quentin was only 8 years old when my mother passed, my Dad became to him both a doting father and mother. Quentin’s sudden passing at the age of 21 last year left Owen saddened, and it is with a bit of happiness that I know that these three are together in The Divine.

I will always be grateful for the sacrifices Owen made for our family, and they were never short-lived. My brothers, sister, and I have many life experiences with my father that have made us amazing, strong, and fortunate people, and we will always keep him in our hearts and prayers. We thank everyone in our community for sharing your thoughts and memories of my father and all the love and support, with a special thanks to the staff at Serenity House.

A memorial party and cruise in Owen’s honor is planned on The Land Shark, Sunday, March 24, starting at the old Nutrition Center, and the public is invited. Please email owenslandsharkparty@gmail.com for details and reservations.

Jagwar Ma

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