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Jonathan Howes Remembered

Jonathan Howes Remembered

“Picture a town too good to be true.”

That was the theme Jonathan Howes chose for an inter-city visit by community leaders that he led to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, in the 1980’s. It was the large vision by a largely quiet man, whose extraordinary life and leadership is being commemorated this weekend at The Chapel of The Cross.

A leader who offered his public service never required the spotlight, but had the courage to take it to stand down fools, those less qualified who rattled nonsense that threatened to harm. And he had a high capability to know the difference.

I wrote then and recall now that, when he served as Chapel Hill mayor for his two terms that began in 1987, the voters didn’t just choose the best candidate. Mayor Howes might have been the most qualified person among all the citizenry at that time for that job.

We believe that we are the best educated town in the state. In fact, we are the best credentialed, as measured by the academy. As such, we have a high population of those who have a very high opinion of their own opinions. Having a Ph. D. in the arts suggests such intelligence to some that it must also apply to where we should put the curb cuts for driveways to development.

In a town of such speechmakers, there is no shortage of views and those willing to argue them. We need fewer of those in government and more of those who can also listen and learn. And we need one as mayor who can do so with intelligence appropriate to the task.

For a mayor’s pittance, we got a professional at that precise job. Howes had his Master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from UNC and another one in Public Administration from Harvard. He was Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at UNC, where he served for 23 years. When it came to how local government can govern best, the man knew his stuff.

Those, though, are just the credentials. It was his philosophy and temperament that set him apart. Preceded by the brilliant, colorful, but divisive Jimmy Wallace, Mayor Howes brought the same intellect, and a quieter presence, until it was time to speak. And when he spoke, he did so with a commanding authority.

He could bring his own clear vision of what he wanted the town to be. Yet, he set a high standard by listening, and in matters of vision, he demonstrated a commitment to the ultimate will of the governed.
For example, he was a vigorous supporter of Rosemary Square, a project in the 100 block east that was have been transformative to the town center.

It generated vigorous opposition. It failed to gain the approval of his council. The people had spoken. He immediately turned to the opponents and asked them to design what they thought should be there. He supported their efforts just as vigorously. The downtown parking deck resulted. And he was there for the ribbon cutting.

He went on to leadership in various and important roles in state government and at the University, where he concluded his career, appropriately, as the liaison between UNC and Chapel Hill. What we celebrate here is his local impact.

I write this from my close up view of a man whose intelligence and temperament set a standard for substance and style in town hall leadership. He elevated us.

It was my objective view of Jon Howes that caused me to be drawn to his leadership. I celebrate it subjectively because from my working with him on some of these things, he became a friend whose ideas informed my own thinking and whose company I miss.

A town too good to be true?

For all its joys, no way. We will continue to argue about curb cuts and traffic circle, high rises and setbacks, how to help the homeless, how to be safe in our streets and homes, and all the rest in our imperfect world.

But, today, the town we live in comes a few notches closer to the dream of Jonathan Howes because he lived here, led here and pressed us toward that vision.

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