Devoted family man, shipyard worker, builder of houses, tree hugger. Born April 21, 1931, in Viking, Alta. Died Nov. 6, 2011, in Victoria of asbestos-related mesothelioma, aged 80.
Howard spent his early years on a hardscrabble farm in Depression-era Alberta. Everyone did their part: His grandmother kept a rifle to protect her chicks from hawks; six-year-old Howard pulled his little wagon to the fields, delivering water to the men threshing. It was idyllic.
On the farm, Howard said, when you had done your chores, you were free. And when other kids showed up, it was playtime. When the family moved to Edmonton to try their luck with business (a pool hall and candy store), Howard said, “The first kid I met wanted to knock my block off.”
He never liked cities, but that was where the work was, so in 1942 the family packed up Howard and his little sister, Helen, and headed to Vancouver, where the shipyards were busy supplying the war.
After high school, Howard followed his father into the shipbuilding trade, but he had other ambitions too. At 21, he and his bride, Shirley, used her savings to buy a lot in suburban North Vancouver. With a set of plans borrowed from an uncle, he built his first house, working in the evenings after his shift at a steel shop. The results were so satisfying that he built a house for his parents too.
With a virtual rain forest for a backyard, Howard and Shirl’s kids, Tom, Debbie and Gary, had their own idyllic childhood. But as the great trees were cut down to make room for more streets and houses, the family decamped to hilly Coquitlam. The house Howard built there was big and modern, with woods in the back for the kids and dog, and an impressive view of Vancouver.
But in the late 1960s, he didn’t like what he saw: a huge pall of smog hanging over the Fraser River. It was a sign that it was time to move on, this time to Vancouver Island, where he and Shirl made a new home on a wooded hill. Cutting down just enough trees to fit in the house, he outfitted it with big windows to let the forest into every room. When they sold Bear Hill years later, they compromised on price in return for a promise to preserve the trees.
Yet Howard was never a grandstander; he was a quiet, kind man who did what he thought was right and would waste no time telling his kids if he thought what they were doing wasn’t. His nieces and nephew remember him as the uncle who wasn’t afraid to yell when required, but was more likely to bray with laughter.
The last house Howard built was up the road from the ocean. It was there that he began to feel the symptoms of the cancer planted in his lungs by asbestos in the shipyards years before. During his final days in the hospice in Victoria, Howard said he hoped that the Canadian government would smarten up and stop exporting asbestos. To him, it was simple: It would be the right thing to do.
Sheree-Lee Olson is Howard’s niece.