Who is J.C. Owsley? Yesterday, we pointed out a terrific infographic in The New York Times, which listed the top salary earners in the country in 1941, and their tax rates. Among the names were well-known titans of industry: Thomas J. Watson, President of IBM; Eugene G. Grace, President of Bethlehem Steel; and Louis B. Mayer, General Manager of MGM. Number one on the list was a gun manufacturer, Carl Swebilius, and his wife Hulda Swebilius. But two of the names on the list, J.C. Owsley and C.S. Woolman, were labeled “unable to identify” by the Times. In a footnote, the paper attributed the lack of information to possible typographical errors in the documents it had received from the National Archives. According to the list, Owsley earned $486,244 and Woolman earned $442,142 in 1941. Could some of the nation’s richest individuals really be so obscure? After some research (and the help of some reader tips), we think we’ve identified both men — but Owsley’s is the trickier case.
The best evidence we turned up for Owsley’s identity comes from a wire story in The Binghamton Press’ October 14, 1943 evening edition. It lists “the Treasury’s annual blue ribbon salary list” for 1941. Number seven on the list is one “J.E. Owsley” who is identified as “vice-president of the Dixwell Corp.” with a salary of $420,289. Taking into account the Times’ own disclaimer about typographical errors, it’s a small scribble or short leap on the keyboard from J.C. Owsley to J.E. Owsley.
Curiously, while the Times’ list and The Binghamton Press’ list both purport to be the top salaries of 1941, there are some discrepancies. The salary figures don’t match, for one. And film star Ginger Rogers, for instance, comes in at number nine, with an income of $355,000 on the Press’, though she was absent from the Times’ graphic. In the Press’ list, Louis B. Mayer comes in at number one. Swebilius is number two, and is listed as the “president of the Dixwell Corp., a management company connected with the High Standard Co., commercial firearms firm of which Mr. Swebilius is a vice-president.”
The Times’ list identifies Swebilius as the head of the Connecticut-based High Standard Manufacturing Company, Inc. In October 1940, High Standard received a $12 million order for machine guns to be mounted in Royal Air Force planes in Europe, according to an article titled “How One Gun Firm Put Defense Into High Speed” in The Christian Science Monitor’s June 3, 1941 issue. The article details the origins of the company, and reports that Swebilius founded it in 1926 with two other men: George R. Willis, the money man, and a Jack Owsley, described in the piece as a “pigskin maestro.” The Monitor quotes Willis saying it was Owsley himself who secured the order from the British Purchasing Commission.
The “pigskin” reference is key. The headline on the obituary for the Owsley who served as vice president at High Standard, which ran in the The New York Times on July 16, 1953, reads: “John E. Owsley, 71, Ex-Coach At Yale.”
The obituary further reports that Owsley was born in Chicago, IL attended Philips Academy in Andover, NH, and graduated from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School. In 1905, the Times reports, Owsley coached Yale’s “famous” championship football team, in 1925 he coached at the U.S. Naval Academy. (The picture of Owsley accompanying this post was taken in 1905, when he was a coach at Yale.)
The third paragraph of the obit ties Owsley to High Standard:
Mr. Owsley acquired a reputation as a wartime production authority in New England. During World War I, he was assistant manager of the Marlin Rockwell Corporation in New Haven, Conn. In 1940, he became associated with the High Standard Manufacturing Company, also in New Haven, and served as its vice president until 1945. He continued to serve High Standard as direcotr of the corporation until about five years ago, when he retired.
In 1908, Owsley married Helen Hall in New Haven, CT. After her death, he married Mary Gunn. He was survived by Gunn, and two daughters. According to the Times, Owsley was “associated” with the lumber business in Wisconsin and Seattle at various times. He once also served as assistant vice president of the steamship lines of the New York, New Have and Hartford Railroad.
We called the High Standard Manufacturing Company. The company’s assets and trademarks were purchased in 1993, and the company relocated to Houston, Texas. Chairman of the board Jim Gray told TPM that he could not confirm that the Owsley on the Times’ list had been specifically associated with the company, but he did recognize the Owsley name as one from the company’s early days.
As for the other mystery man on the Times’ list, he may have been staring us in the face the whole time. In the same Binghamton Press article that lists Owsley as vice-president of the Dixwell Corp., one C.S. Woolman is listed as the “vice-president of Hales and Hunter Co., Illinois, manufacturers of dog and poultry feed — $390,489.” More when we find it.
Correction: The post originally surmised along with others that Woolman was the founder of Delta airlines. Given the Binghamton Press article from 1943 identifying Wollman as an Illinois feed company executive, that surmise appears to be incorrect.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com