While growing up in Lexington, James P. Owen said, he always loved watching Westerns every Saturday at the Ashland Theater that once stood on Euclid Avenue.
He said there would always be a Gene Autry feature and one starring Will Rogers, and he couldn't get enough of cowboys.
"They stood for something," Owen told members of the Rotary Club of Lexington last week. "Authenticity. You can't fake being a cowboy."
Those memories became particularly poignant to Owen as he neared the end of 40 years in the field of financial investments a few years ago. The corruption, greed and scandals he saw around him began to turn him off.
At first, Owen said, "I thought it was a few bad apples. Then I learned it is embedded in our culture."
Owen, who has written two books on investing — The Prudent Investor: The Definitive Guide to Professional Investment Management and The Prudent Investor's Guide to Hedge Funds — said we celebrate celebrity, acquisition of material goods, and the "anything goes as long as you don't get caught" philosophy of life.
Then in 2003, Owen watched Open Range, a Western starring Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. Owen recalls Costner's character saying, "There are things that gnaw on a man worse than dying." He knew then what he had to do.
The following year, his book Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn From the Code of the West was published. It explores the lives and principles of working cowboys who placed a higher value on personal character than on material gains. That book was followed last year with Cowboy Values: Recapturing What America Once Stood For.
The success of the first cowboy book led Owen to set up a foundation, the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership, in Denver in 2006 to teach those ethics to schoolchildren. "I never believed I could change the 50-year-olds," Owen said Thursday.
A couple of his classmates from the class of 1958 at Henry Clay High School were impressed with the book and the success stories of the first children to take the ethics class at Cherry Creek High School in Denver. They asked Fayette County Public School Superintendent Stu Silberman whether the code could be taught here.
John Nochta, principal at Henry Clay, said Jody Cabble incorporated the code last year into a leadership class she teaches after school there.
Nochta said about 40 kids in two classes attend. Each class lasts about three hours once a week. "They've got to commit to it," he said. "It's on their own time."
The code of ethics is good common sense, he said.
"I am very scared," Nochta said, "of what the world will come to when our kids get to be our age."
Owen said the program has been in place for two years, and a dozen schools have adopted the curriculum.
The cowboy ethics are the home-grown teachings we older folks grew up with and then lost along the way in favor of acquiring possessions. Some of us might recognize Biblical teachings in them.
They basically tell us, treat everyone fairly, don't lie or cheat, and give a good day's work for a good day's pay.
"I thought (the program) would build character," Owen said, "but that ended up being only about 5 percent. It is instilling pride and self-esteem."
Instead of presenting more rules, the program establishes principles, he said. "You can bend rules, but you can't bend principles."
America is experiencing a general lack of civility, Owen told the Rotarians, and that is evident in calling the president a liar, cursing a tennis line judge, and stealing someone's thunder at an awards show.
Add that to the increasing greed we see permeating businesses. "When there is money on the table, the temptations are huge," he said.
It is obvious some Americans are yearning for a simpler life, and we can get that by returning to core beliefs, regardless of what we call them.
Although cowboys are his heroes, Owen said, a hero can also be a single mother of two who finds time to do homework with her children. Or a hero can be the adult child who gives up his or her career to care for ailing parents. Or even the businessman who cuts his own salary to avoid laying off workers.
In other words, Owen wants us all to grow up to be cowboys. This society won't survive unless we do.