October 12, 2013

Tim Howard: ‘A hero for this community’

Misty Watson

— “He’s a living, breathing history book.”

It’s a phrase often used to describe Tim Howard, the eighth-grade history teacher at Bagley Middle School, who is also the Murray County historian and a leader in preserving local history.

This time, the words were spoken by Katherine Baxter, a current student of Howard’s. Other students standing nearby quickly agreed. They said they know Howard cares, not just about history but about them, too. He takes an interest in them and pushes them to reach their full potential.

“He teaches things outside the standards,” Cole Cash said. “He teaches stuff he’s not required to that he thinks you just need to know, things you should know.”

Howard, a native of Murray County, has spent all of his teen years and adult life preserving local history. He was one of the youngest people to be involved in the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society, the only student in the organization for many years, according to Ellen Thompson, a past president of the historical society and longtime member. He began working and volunteering at the Chief Vann House while in high school and has worked since then educating people on the historical significance of the home as well as helping to preserve it. He established the first “Friends” group in the state when he formed the Friends of the Vann House in 1989.

For all that Howard has accomplished inside the classroom and out, he was recognized recently by Gov. Nathan Deal as a recipient of a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities.

Thompson serves on the Georgia Council for the Humanities, but said she wasn’t on the committee who selected recipients.

“I think one of the reasons Tim was selected is because of his passion for preserving local history, both his profession and his hobby,” she said. “It’s what he does every minute of every day.”

“I was proud that out of 15, I was the only school teacher,” Howard said. “Also, I was the only one from northwest Georgia ... I’m glad I’m here to get it. I had some challenges the last couple of years.”

Howard has battled prostate cancer, but since it was found early, he’s been able to overcome it with surgeries and has avoided chemotherapy or radiation treatment. It slowed him down in all his efforts, but he’s picked up the pace again. He plans to resume teaching Murray on My Mind, a class on Murray’s history, this summer.

Letting go

Howard has the ability to recall details, people and places in Murray without hesitation. He passes the information on not only to his students at Bagley, but to adults who take his Murray on My Mind class and to those in the Leadership Murray class, where he teaches a section on local history.

“I have been very blessed to have gotten to do what I always wanted to do,” Howard said. “From elementary school on I was interested in history with a slant toward local history ... I’ve been very blessed to have stayed in the same place for so long.”

Howard is in his 32nd year as a teacher in Murray County, which he says is his last. Howard began his teaching career in special education. He has mostly taught eighth-grade social studies, but also language arts and even a year of math. He was at Murray County Junior High until middle schools were formed and split into Bagley and Gladden in 1989.

“If I have been a good teacher, it’s because I’ve truly loved what I’ve done and never stopped learning,” Howard said. “Students ask me how I know (history). It’s because I’ve never stopped learning.”

When a pastor at Howard’s church resigned he said, “I have brought the church as far as I can,” which Howard thought was wise of him to realize. And that’s how Howard feels now in the classroom, like he’s brought students as far as he can.

“I always prayed I’d know when to let things go,” he said.

With changes to standards and methods of teaching in the last few years, Howard says he knows it’s time to retire.

“They want you to use technology ...  I’m not where I want to change because I don’t think it’s all for the best,” he said.

Spencer Gazaway, principal at Bagley, taught history at Murray County High School before moving to Bagley seven years ago.

“When I was teaching social studies at the high school, I could tell if students had had Mr. Howard from their ability to write and communicate and their understanding,” Gazaway said. “He’s a hero for this community and this school. He’s a champion for this community ... It’s a well-deserving honor (from the governor), something not many people experience.”

When former students visit Bagley, the one teacher they ask to see is “T,” which is what many students call Howard.

“Mr. Howard is a fixture in this community, not just the school,” Gazaway said.

Howard has been named the system’s teacher of the year twice and Student Teacher Achievement Recognition (STAR) twice. STAR teachers are selected by STAR students in their senior year.

“How many middle school teachers are named STAR teachers? But he was, twice,” Gazaway said. “What’s apparent is he’s vested in the kids and in the school. It’s a part of who he is.”

For many years Howard has been the Junior Beta Club sponsor and has coached both the Quiz Bowl and Georgia Quiz Bowl teams.

“In Quiz Bowl, if there’s a question you should know, he’s constructive,” Cash said. “He corrects you. He gives you tips to help you. If we get first place, he takes us out to eat.”

For many years, Howard organized the eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C., and the eighth-grade gifted trip to Savannah and Jekyll or Tybee islands. He’s tried to pass the trips on to other people, but others have been hesitant to take them on.

“A lot of it is time,” Howard said. “I’m not married, did not have a family, so I had time to do it. I think back and among the best things about teaching were taking kids on those trips that wouldn’t have gotten to see those places otherwise.”

He believes having traditions at a school, such as having the D.C. trip to look forward to, a winning Quiz Bowl team or athletic team, is the key to building school pride. Having school pride helps keep students interested in school. To build tradition, a school needs stability with teachers and administration.

“One of the biggest reasons private schools succeed is because they set traditions that bring loyalty and stable faculty and staff that people can always come back to,” Howard said. “That’s what Bagley did. We established traditions. You can’t build a program without continuity.”

Preserving history

Through all of Howard’s work preserving history and teaching, he has come back to one theme.

“It’s OK to be from Murray County,” he said. “We have lots of good things to be proud of.”

Howard is heavily involved in the historical society, having served as president, heading many of the committees and serving as a trustee. He has been instrumental in preserving many of the society’s properties, including the Old Spring Place Methodist Church, the Wright Hotel and the Chatsworth Depot. He’s also a key member of the Spring Place Ruritan Club and active in his church.

One of Howard’s main projects has been preserving and continuing programs at the Chief Vann House in Spring Place, a state historic site. In recent years, state budget cuts have left people wondering how the Vann House would remain open.

“Without our Friends group that Tim organized, especially with the budget cuts, it would have been impossible for us to maintain our standards,” said Julia Autry, interpretive ranger at the Vann House. “With only one full-time employee we really depend on the volunteers. Without Tim, none of this would be here. He was the driving force behind the house for many years.”

Howard created programs at the Vann House, including Vann House Days each summer and the Christmas by Candlelight each December. He trained the docents and helped bring in much of the donations, which allowed the historic site to build a museum and obtain more land.

“Without him, this place wouldn’t exist as it is,” Autry said. “It sounds like a hyperbole, but it’s really not. He’s really made it what it is today.”

Jim Stancil, who retired earlier this year as site manager at the Vann House, said Howard has become the “Vann House icon.”

“It has been a labor of love for him,” Stancil said. “He doesn’t do it for the money. He just really loves the Vann House.”

Howard has jumped in to help wherever he was needed, helping with research, giving a tour or even trimming shrubs and cleaning, Stancil said.

“We’re all very happy for Tim getting this great recognition that he surely deserves,” Stancil said. “What a true friend he has been to the Vann House all these years. I think he’ll always be there looking out for the Vann House.”