Like a lot of people in this community, news of the unexpected death of Jonathan Howes hit me pretty hard. Howes, was a lot of things to a lot of people – mayor, cabinet secretary, planner, dreamer, grandpa.
To me, he was my teacher. I’m one of the thousands who knew him as “Professor Howes” and I think I only stopped calling him that, switching to “Jon,” about five years ago.
In the late 1980s, I was just starting my newspaper career, working part-time and taking classes at Carolina when I took his Introduction to City & Regional Planning.
Far from an introduction, the class was total immersion into planning, design and vision. We studied the great cities, how they came about and where they were going. The array of visitors included designers extending the meridians of Paris and university staff developing a vision for North and South campus and development of the Horace Williams property.
He spelled out the struggles of this state, the Triangle region and the towns.
One afternoon we walked through downtown Chapel Hill, professor and a dozen planning students in tow. The lecture that day was on the conundrums of downtown – density, transit, the shelter, parking, infill and, mostly, vision.
Considering what I’ve done for a living all the years since, that class was by far the most valuable experience I had at the university.
A close second came just a couple of years later not long before Professor Howes took the job as secretary of the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources in the second Jim Hunt era.
He and Thad Beyle, another great professor and a former aide to Gov. Terry Sanford team-taught a North Carolina politics course that was unvarnished and sometimes other-wordly.
Mostly, the two of them sat up front and held court. They got into the guts of policy and how it gets done. The two professors, part of the generation of change, asserted that big ideas like better roads, public health and a research park can still happen. They pointed repeatedly to examples of progress in the face of adversity.
A few Sundays ago at the service at Chapel of the Cross, the common threads in the remembrances were what a full life he led and how difficult was the realization that his steady presence in this town was suddenly gone. place_fact1
You saw the same theme of positive pragmatism throughout Howes’ career in public service.
He served on the council and as mayor from 1975 to 1991, a time when the town and university were swelling. His personality was a huge help in rallying the town and other local leaders to get ahead of the growth. Howes was remarkable for pulling off the rare combination of tenacity, confidence and humility. He did it with a genuine sense of humor that never came across as forced and sometimes was downright mischevous. He also had a great laugh.
He showed us his dedication even in his final year, taking the reins at the N.C. Botanical Garden during the search for a new director. My wife works at the garden and often saw him there working after most folks had left.
A few Sundays ago at the service at Chapel of the Cross, the common threads in the remembrances were what a full life he led and how difficult was the realization that his steady presence in this town was suddenly gone.
Take a little solace, friends, in the fine library, the garden, the state parks trust fund, the fact that there are not strip malls everywhere nor a five-lane Pittsboro Street. Remember that after all that construction North Campus still looks like North Campus and South Campus now makes sense.
Some of that steady presence is still right here with us. You just got to look around.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at email@example.com