Melvin Howards, born Melvin (Mordechai) Horowitz in the Bronx, son of Harry and Leah Horowitz, slipped peacefully away on May 31, 2021. Mel, the name he preferred, is survived by his favorite daughter Ellen of Boston, his beloved wife Marcia of Wrentham, and many nieces, nephews, grandsons, cousins, and his much-adored in-laws. He was predeceased by his sons Dorian and Jason. A loyal friend, charismatic teacher and mentor to many—he will be greatly missed.
“Redaction: “to select or adapt (as by obscuring or removing sensitive information) for publication or release; broadly: EDIT. (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.) This I shall do as honestly and accurately as I am able—or willing—to do. Isn’t all memory and storytelling redaction? We go through life telling certain stories about ourselves and our lives and they become our truth, our reality, even as we may doubt their accuracy; they are our stories: like the Bible, redacted but believed for want of the original—if such a thing actually exists. What else am I than the stories I tell of myself, however redacted? In terms of identity, I am a New Yorker—The Bronx to be exact.”
He was fond of telling the story of his “through line” and it was part of the notes for his memoir:
“The key to my life, if one is able to reduce all the days and ways of an active life to a single event, here is mine. I was about 6 or 7 years old and living in the Bronx and the street in front of our building had just been tarred. I came downstairs in my best clothes, the only best clothes I had, and I said: You wanna see me jump across the street? I fully believed I could jump from one side of the street to the other. The guys said sure, jump. (Now I suspect they were probably snickering.) I ran a few steps and made a leap. And landed in the wet tar. My new clothes were ruined. I was surprised that I had not made it across the street. My mother, who was a meticulously, compulsively clean person, took me into the bathroom, stripped off my clothes and scrubbed my body with a hard, bristled floor brush until l bled. Whenever, in later years, I read about scourging, I felt the pain all over again. Through the years I have occasionally looked back on that event and thought that’s me, that’s always been me. I have repeatedly made choices first and considered the consequences later. Often those choices worked out well, others, not so much. In part, it explains why I have moved some 50 times in my life, married three times, ended up in tiny towns in the foreign land known as the Midwest. In the theater, we refer to the through line of a play that runs the length of the play and is its core, its essence. The jump across the street is my through line.”
Mel joined the Navy right out of high school. A World War II veteran, he was stationed on Guam and then on Tinian, the island from which the Enola Gay left on its mission. He always remarked that the high school teachers were glad to see him go. Not a lover of school in his youth, he was quite the troublemaker. And yet he spent his entire life educating and teaching students of all ages and backgrounds. He learned to drive on that island—and that says a great deal about his driving skills!
“I leapt across the street to enlist in the Navy at 17 in WW II…we moved onto the base into a Quonset hut with some 20 guys, most of whom were much older than I. I became their mascot. Since I had absolutely no mechanical skills, I took over the company newsletter. I collected information, typed the stories on stencils, put the stencils on the hand wound ditto machine(?)—and ran off enough copies for everyone in the company. On Sunday mornings I delivered them to each Quonset to comments about how I was competing with the NY Times. I loved the job and most of the old guys in the company. I learned something about life, love, marriage, and living in other parts of the country—particularly the south. I found it all very interesting and I read, for the first time, in the tiny library in the Quonset where my equipment was for the newsletter. I read history and psychology and could not get enough. Of course, I was ridiculed in the hut where several older guys gathered on Sunday to get drunk and to tell stories of their lives, loves, and hopes. One of the best schools I ever attended. I proved to be a better student than I knew at the time. Much better. I wrote an impassioned editorial for November 11, 1945 and was congratulated by some of the guys.”
After his stint in the Navy, he returned home and began applying to colleges along with many other GI’s. The competition was fierce for someone with a poor academic record. He did his undergraduate work at Drake University, received an M.A. from Columbia University, and completed his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Reading at New York University. Not bad for a kid from the Bronx. He loved the language of life, poetry, theatre and music—he wanted to be Harry James. Mel read voraciously—anything and everything he could get his hands on and he was always encouraging others to do so.
Mel began his teaching career at Northeastern University in 1962 and retired in 1990. He was fond of saying that it was the best, busiest and most exciting time of his life. Mel published two books: Read Your Way Up and Reading Diagnosis and Instruction: An Integrated Approach and many professional journal articles. He directed and developed numerous programs for disadvantaged youth and adults in Boston, greater Massachusetts and across the country. Mel established the Northeastern University Reading Clinic and served as chairperson of the College of Education Department of Curriculum and Instruction and Reading. He served as the education consultant for many of the University of Colorado’s programs for migrant workers, the Blackfeet in Browning, Montana, the Oglala Sioux in South Dakota, and for the urban poor everywhere. His text Read Your Way Up was accompanied by a series of thirty half-hour TV programs at WGBH in Boston for participants in the Neighborhood Youth Corps and the Job Corps. His school for drop-outs in Boston was exemplary, such that the Superintendent of Schools at the time granted diplomas to its graduates. Mel trained VISTA volunteers at Northeastern University and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. Many of these VISTA volunteers and other students stayed in touch throughout his life. He presented at many national conferences, including several World Affairs Conferences at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Later in life Mel began writing poetry, plays and published a collection of essays entitled: Provocations: the wit, wisdom and whimsy of Mel Howards for which he received recognition from the New England Book Festival and the National Indie Excellence Award.
A delegation of Chinese scholars visited Northeastern University in the early 1980’s and shortly thereafter Mel was invited to teach students and train teachers in China as a Foreign Expert. He jumped at the chance as he had done across that newly tarred pavement of his youth. Mel always said that living in China altered his life course, he dearly loved the people, the long history and the culture and made many enduring friendships. His life was greatly enriched as he and Marcia traveled by train to Shanghai, Xian, Kunming, Guilin, Hebei, Datong, and Hangzhou just to name a few. They lived in Beijing for 16 months and taught at the Foreign Languages Institute. Mel published a manual for teachers of English in China and numerous essays for The World of English, a well-known Chinese publication for English language learners.
He retired to Maine in 1990 and continued to write, teach and perform, once taking part in a staged reading of an LGBTQ play written by a loyal friend. This earned Mel the distinguished title of “honorary lesbian”, something he rather enjoyed. He taught courses at the University of Southern Maine Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and founded the Senior Players, a reader’s theatre which continues to this day. He also directed many plays for community theaters including some of his own work. One of his plays, Auction, won him several awards and was performed as a staged reading by the USM Senior Players and the Freeport Community Players. Maine remained in his heart and soul and he always hoped to return.
One of Mel’s longest enduring friendships was with dear Lauro Martines, an Italian Renaissance Scholar of London, a friend since 1948 and from his years at Drake. “…Mel was always a feisty guy: vigorous, alert, fast intellectually, and swift with words. He believed in the future; he saw a better world there; and this is why, in his work, he was so fervently committed to education and to teaching…In his prime, Mel often seemed to have more energy, more ambition, more sparkle, than two or three people put together. That was Mel.”
After 25 years in Maine, Mel and his wife moved back to Massachusetts to be closer to family and Mel began working anew on a memoir which he began in 1950 and had not worked on since the birth of his children. “At night, I would return to my classroom alone and write, longhand, what I thought would become the great American novel, or some such thing.” Mel and Marcia set about getting it onto his computer so he could begin again. He completed it last year. It will be published in the near future—it is his “through line.”
“Now cracks a noble heart.
Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”
We loved you well.
There will be a celebration of Mel’s life in the early Fall at Bourne National Cemetery where his ashes have been interred. A second celebration will take place in Maine. Details to follow.
Mel completed the poem below in 2017 after suffering a health crisis:
A Time Comes
A time comes surreptitiously
in small waves and
when the body knows
what the brain cannot bear;
the secret reveals itself.
One comes so easily to tears
at real and imagined sorrow.
The shadow descends,
while the unintelligible
makes a home
somewhere in his chest,
the will surrenders begrudgingly
to its frailty.
His time has come
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