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Dr. Howard

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Dr. Edward Berryman, a dear teacher who died in August. This week, I heard that another professor of mine, Dr. Thomas Howard, recently passed away as well.

Two columns about old professors in three weeks? Why not. The chance to write about Dr. Tom Howard is too good to pass up.

Dr. Howard taught American history at the University of North Dakota.

His view of history was that you had to go way back in time to get to the root of the matter. Way, way back.

When I took the history of the American Revolution from Dr. Howard, I was surprised that he started out by discussing the Roman Empire.

We eventually got up to the Puritans. By the end of the semester, we were into the 1700's, but we never fought a battle. To Dr. Howard, the philosophical roots of the American Revolution were far more important than the silly battles that fill the textbooks.

One day that semester, a freshman student asked an innocent question. "I am confused, just what is the difference between the Puritans and the Pilgrims?"

Dr. Howard sighed. Then he started his answer.

Two class periods and five days later, he gestured to the hapless student and said, "so, in answer to your question..."

One day Dr. Howard left a note for me to see him in his office. Oh dear, I thought. He had standards, and I was pretty sure I wasn't meeting them.

Dr. Howard's chain smoking was the stuff of legend, and as I sat in his office fearing the worse, a forgotten cigarette smoldered in the ashtray while he busily tugged on another.

Dr. Howard said a student in the class was struggling. He had flunked the first test. The kid was at his wit's end. Would I be willing to help?

"Of course," I said, not knowing what I would do.

I spent all of twenty minutes with the student. He didn't seem to want my assistance. But I showed him how I outlined my answers on the essay exams before I wrote them out.

Apparently it worked. The student got B for the course. I didn't know until Dr. Howard called me into his office to tell me it was my help that did it. I was proud as a peacock. Dr. Howard made sure to make me feel better, too.

I came back to UND for graduate school. At that time I became familiar with the fact that Dr. Howard liked to drink. To excess. Pretty much nightly.

Oh, it annoyed him when final examinations were scheduled after five p.m. "Why, that's smack dab in the middle of cocktail hour!" he said incredulously.

To preserve his routine, he had graduate students proctor the late exams. We all knew why.

Dr. Howard gave up driving in 1969, which was a relief to all concerned.

But at the rate he was going, nobody figured Dr. Howard would live very long.

He loved to tell about his when his doctor put him on a treadmill. After a few seconds, the alarmed doctor turned the machine off. "We don't want you to die right here!" he said, and sent Dr. Howard home as a hopeless case.

But Dr. Howard chugged on. Ten years ago, he retired. I lost touch with him then, and didn't hear the rest of the story until this week.

After retirement, Tom Howard got married. At 66 years of age, he and his new wife took in an orphaned four-year-old girl with troubles galore.

In a feat of iron will, Dr. Howard quit drinking and smoking cold turkey and devoted himself to the care of his new daughter.

Miraculously, the little girl came around. After early troubles, she started getting good grades. Today, she excels in school and is a perfectly normal girl on the verge of her teens.

Tom Howard didn't make it to age 80, but despite decades of hard living, he came darn close.

Professor Howard left behind hundreds of students with an enhanced understanding of history, each with their own stories about an unusual and fascinating man.

But in an unexpected twist, Tom Howard also left behind a little girl who, against all odds, can go through life saying she had a good Dad.