A. Harold Howell, Jr., 1941-2012
By: David A. Smith
The man who more than any other individual impelled me into a career in affordable housing died yesterday of a sudden massive stroke. Harry Howell was seventy.
Though Harry and I were only thirteen years apart and went to the same college, we straddle the social divide of the 1960s. By the time I arrived at Harvard all the political and cultural fireworks had happened, and Harry had left for the Navy before they ever began.
Harvard Yard, just before my time and just after Harry’s
So Harry was spiritually of that 1950s generation, an All-Ivy hockey defenseman with a short haircut that never varied in half a century and an amiable incomprehension of social protest and personal angst.
From a simpler time: Harry’s teammate Tim Taylor, ’63
I met Harry in the June, 1975, having just graduated from college and needing a job. My trail of temporary typing gigs had taken me to what was then called Boston Financial Technology Group; through highway and byways, it would become my employer for the ensuing fourteen years, largely because of Jim Hughes (who hired me as his secretary) and more because of Harry, who nine months after I started brought me in to what was then called Investor Services and today would be called Asset Management.
My old partner Jon Keyes described Harry to me, very early in those years, as the glue who had held together the firm in the dark days of 1974 when, hemorrhaging cash because the founding CEO had gone in a dozen directions at once, the senior executives had banded together to persuade the First National Bank of Boston not to shut the company down – on condition, among other things, that the original CEO exit entirely from management.
Unbelievably, they wanted their money back
In his place, the six critical partners nominated Harry as notional CEO, first among equals. But Harry never cared a whit about titles, or personal glamor or status, or anything but loyalty to his team. When I moved out of being a secretary and into Investor Services, I was eager for a title, but Harry said I shouldn’t have one. “If you’re any good,” he told me, “nobody cares what your title is. If you’re bad, your title won’t save you. And if you have no title, then you have to be seen for yourself, not for your uniform or rank, and you can reinvent your job endlessly.” Three and a half decades later, I never use a title except under compulsion.
Because he cared only for the team’s success and not for his personal standing, the Boston Financial partners tended to throw Harry head first into whatever was then the firm’s biggest problem. In 1976 that was Investor Services. The 1974 Arab Oil Embargo having kicked off stagflation, affordable housing properties were failing right and left, and in jeopardy. A foreclosure epidemic would kill the firm, so it fell to Harry to figure out how to persuade investors to put in new money voluntarily as part of an overall restructuring (what today we would recognize as workouts).
For this role Harry was ideal, because, like Dr. Samuel Johnson, he believed there was no problem the mind of man could set that the mind of man could not solve.
“Every man is rich or poor according to the proportion between his desires and his enjoyments.”
His combination of unquenchable optimism, tireless analytics, and exhausting curiosity dissolved people’s barriers to communication, and Harry believed that if one kept asking questions and kept exploring the possibilities, sooner or later would emerge a multi-actor solution that was better than anyone’s unilateral alternative. In effect, Harry pioneered the Getting To Yes mentality before Fisher and Ury published their book.
Harry lived the book, Fisher and Ury wrote it
I was a great sidekick for him, because I was too inexperienced to know conventional wisdom, readily educable, and with an energy to match his. So Harry brought me in to workouts as a man Friday, and together we learned the business – anatomy discovered in the emergency room. Under Harry’s direction, I wrote computer programs in BASIC to analyze the cost of foreclosure, then wrote explanatory memos to limited partners showing that while they could let the property go to foreclosure, it would be in their economic interest to invest.
To workouts, Harry brought a unique approach characteristic of him. At one point we were exploring scenarios if the counterparties reneged on their commitments to contribute, and Harry wrote on his pad, in his minuscule handwriting, What do if no pay?, a question I thought so hilarious I hung across the wall of my office an enormous dot-matrix-printed banner, WHAT DO IF NO PAY? with the letters ten inches high made out of the word Foreclose! endlessly repeated.
Imagine an eight-foot scroll saying What Do If No Pay?
Nevertheless, Harry had the right approach: figure out each other person’s motivations, perspectives, and alternatives. Never talk about your own perspective (because you fully comprehend your own motives and they’re unimportant to anyone else). Instead, see your role as assembling a solution that works for everyone else because it addresses their imperatives. I subsequently codified this into the Stone Soup approach to workouts.
From my 1990 Stone Soup article in Real Estate Review
Among the properties we had to tackle was King Arthur Apartments, whose financial statements made absolutely no sense to us, so the two of us flew to Dayton to visit the property. “What can you expect?” the general partner said, showing us yet another uninhabitable apartment. At each next apartment I became more and more silently furious. “Harry,” I said under my breath, “this is offensive. Aren’t you outraged that someone can take money for delivering such miserable housing?” It was a turning point in my life – that the property deserves respect, and that people who do not respect the property or the mission of affordable housing do not deserve to own or operate it, and must be removed from controlling positions.
In 1989 I left Boston Financial to start my own company, and Harry and I drifted apart, so I learned only tangentially about his commitment to Family College, a camp-style household turnaround service he sought to establish at Westminster Village, a large affordable housing property I had acquired for Boston Financial during the resyndication heyday. No doubt Harry threw himself intensively into that as well, immersing in these families’ lives and giving them his all. What did his charges make of him? Someone so energetically transparent appears to many people inconceivable, so hardened and cynical have we become. Then there was his stint teaching business in Spanish in Chile and Barcelona (conveniently in time for the 1992 Olympics, which he had a passion to watch).
Harry found a way to be there throughout
In 1995 he took all his experiences and founded Advancement Plus, a non-profit whose mission reads like pure Harry:
Advancement Plus, a private foundation, believes that providing a quality education to all children is vital to the future prosperity of the United States, both as a social justice issue and an economic issue. We work with organizations striving to achieve this ideal in Boston; both those working in the policy arena and those engaged in the day-to-day work of helping children graduate from the Boston Public Schools and go on to successful college careers. We also work with organizations outside of the education arena that are seeking to improve the lives of Boston’s disadvantaged residents. We support the mission of all these organizations by doing specific projects and other work requested by them to enhance their ability to achieve their goals and to provide the best results possible to their clients.
A 1913 poster from the Advancement Plus Web site
Harry was a man whom it was impossible to imagine dying as long as there was another intractable problem to solve. I had and still have a vision of Harry at (say) ninety-five, returning from a rousing game of pickup hockey, maybe a little more stooped and harder of hearing, but still filling 8½ x 11 pads with notes in his cramped and spiky handwriting about extended lifespan, how to reinvent our cities, or a potential revolution in education.
On Tuesday, at the age of seventy, Harry charged into death as he had charged into everything in his life: head first.
Permission to come aboard in the afterlife, sir!