The Life of a Significant Man

Bill Howard on Maine Coast
Sometimes you meet someone, and they stay with you - if not physically, at least in your heart. In the mid-nineties, I’d been - very much against my will - temporarily thrust into management. I hated it, too right brained and technical to manage teams. I got myself out of the position and back into what I enjoyed a year or so later, but I came to realize God put me into that temporary place for one major reason: I needed to meet a man named Bill Howard.

You see, every couple of years the company I had worked for back then liked to disrupt employee’s lives (and livelihood) by laying off a percentage of the workforce. I became manager and a week later was sitting in a room with other managers and the names of every employee below our rank was pasted onto the wall and, like kids picking whiffle ball teams, we took turns pointing to a name and saying, “I’ll take him/her.” Insane, but I suppose as effective as any other method.

A day earlier, a man I occasionally worked with - and I give him all the credit aside from God’s hand in what would come - pulled me aside and asked me to seriously consider choosing an older (at the time that would be 50, my age now) man and long-time employee whom he was concerned about and asked me to save him from the axe. He’d been through some rough patches in his life and was a great guy and really needed this job. I was humbled, especially in the midst of so much posturing from everyone over their own jobs, for this to be requested of me for someone else, namely this man Bill whom I did not know previously.

Long story a bit shorter, I picked Bill and as many as I could to build my team. I met him the next day and we all got to work. That was 20 years ago. Bill was the most laid back guy I’d ever met (though he could get riled up over some topics just like everyone), and this in a work environment that was so stressful I’d lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling wondering how I’d get through the next day. Bill was ‘old school…’ new technology was coming into a fairly established department and it was hard to adjust to it at times. I’m his age then, now (if that makes any grammatical sense) and I can relate. We worked together, he did his job with a smile and a joke and never took it, or himself, too seriously. Over time, as I got to know him, I started to mellow out myself - he had that effect.

I will highlight one incident that I’ve related to people in the past, and I hope his wife Kate won’t mind I tell it, but it was just so Bill… not long after he joined my team he had to present a report change he’d worked on before a group of reviewers. Standard policy, but he was a little stressed about speaking in front of a lot of people. Just before.. I mean two minutes before we were to head into the conference room, he was toying with a loose tooth with his tongue and said, “Wait a second,” reached in and yanked the tooth out. It was loose and annoying and he’d had enough. Blood spilled onto his lips. I stared at him, dumbfounded, but we were late and headed to the meeting anyway. I’m pretty sure I loved the guy right then (these days I should probably add: “in a guy kind of platonic way, of course.” lol). Seeing him do that changed me in some weird way. One thing about him - he was himself and didn’t give a crap what others thought.

This is about my friendship with Bill Howard. Although his past life, with its mistakes and pain and heartbreak and joy and happiness up to that point shaped the man I met, I won’t go into that. In our subsequent friendship, three things about him always stood out - his love for his wife Kate (he talked about her all the time with such a fondness), his love for and unwavering faith in Jesus Christ and the Church, and his passion for painting.

Bob Ross
Bill was a painter. And a master painter, at that. Did everything he paint come out perfect? Of course not. Everything Monet painted didn’t come out perfect either. But most of what he did was quite good, and much of it incredible. About a year after we met, my extended family decided to do “make a gifts” for Christmas by picking a name of a sibling or in-law, aunt or uncle, and making something for them by hand. I drew my sister Anne’s name. I wanted to paint a painting, but had never done it before. So I went to a Bob Ross (“Happy Paintbrush!”) class at the local Michael’s store and learned his wet-on-wet oil painting technique. I painted her a great (I think) painting. It’s not in my gallery, never managed to get a photo of it, but I began painting in earnest with this technique. When Bill learned what I was doing, he got very excited.

“You’ve been doing that Bob Ross style long enough,” he told me one morning at work. “It’s time you learned how to really paint.” So the next day we went to his house (not far from work) where two easels had been set  up. Bill began teaching me oil painting techniques for shading, colors, shapes. Basic stuff to him that was revelation to me.

“What color is the shadow on the snow over there?” he asked me once. I knew enough not to say “black” by that time, so I looked, realized shadow on snow on a sunny day is blue, because of the sky. Shadows around most objects retain the color of the surface they’re on. And shadow was very important for depth. “Look at that,” he’d say, pointing to one object or another. “You could paint that.” When I said it wouldn’t be very good, he added, “Yes, if you tried to draw it because that’s what beginners do. Paint brushes are never, ever, used for drawing. They’re for blocking out shapes, making shadow, painting darks and lights. Never paint the object. Paint the shadows, and the shapes. When you’re done, what you are looking at will suddenly appear on the canvas.” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing, but I’ve always remembered his lessons so these quotes are pretty close.)

When I painted I felt awkward and clumsy next to him, but that’s to be expected. He’d been painting for decades before me. When I paint today, his voice is in my head all the time, instructing me, guiding me, reminding me to focus on the shapes, even if that means blurring my vision so I don’t look too closely at the object.

One day, years later after I left the company to work at my present job and he soon after retired to Maine with his wife, I went to visit him. I spent the weekend at their house. Every day he went to an AA meeting and seemed excited to have me join him. We hung out with some of his friends, then the next day we went to church, met people for coffee after another AA meeting, then did some painting. He was into watercolors by then. He whipped together a painting as an example and was going to toss it - but I begged him to let me keep it - it was amazing. I still have it on my wall. (He almost didn’t let me take it, not being happy with how it came out.) It was a fun visit, and I went home. That was around 1999 or so.

Living then on the Maine coast, Bill painted up a storm, going through phases of different mediums and styles. We would talk often over email, sometimes by phone. He sent attachments of his seascapes or still-life’s and I replied with my honest opinions. On rare occasions, I managed to crank out a painting of my own and then send him a pic.

Bill's Painting
When we were still co-workers, around ‘94 or so when he first took me under his wing (in a way we were under each other’s wings: him under mine at work, me under his at the easel), I asked if I could buy one of his paintings. He waved an arm and said, “Sure, take your pick.” My eyes quickly locked onto a beautiful still life, framed, in the corner. He bristled at first, because it was one of his favorites, but only at first. He charged me: $100 AND an original Dan Keohane painting when I felt ready to make one that I felt was worthy to serve as payment. I knew that would take some time (the painting), but I agreed. I paid him the money, took my new painting home (it’s pictured here) and have lovingly had it hanging in my house ever since.

Like I said, years later I changed jobs and he retired. I had not yet made a painting for him. I finally realized enough was enough. In 2003 (yes, we’re talking nine years later), I spend weeks working on what needed to be a perfect (as in appropriate and decent-looking) artwork.

"...snatch the pebble from my hand..."
I knew what I wanted to call it: “Payment To the Master.” It needed to reflect Bill and his love of painting, but also have a Christian theme - thus enhance the double meaning of the title. The composition consisted of a Bible, a loaf of bread, grapes (I didn’t want actual wine so the grapes served as reference) a can of paint brushes and, front and center of it all: an apple. Why the apple? Like the old master holding out a pebble to David Carradine in the 70’s TV show Kung Fu (“When you can snatch the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave...” Look it up on YouTube), Bill told me that when I can paint an apple and have it look like a real apple, I will be officially a painter. I practiced a lot with apples before 2003’s Grand Painting Epic.

I finished the painting. It came out pretty decent, if I do say so myself. It wasn’t perfect, but it was right. I had to go visit Bill someday soon and give it to him. It would be such a great closure to our earlier deal almost a decade earlier. He & I did try to connect early on, but our schedules never matched (the weekends I was free he was not, and vice versa). Over time, Life took over our respective schedules, many crazy things started to happen in my world, of course. In short, Life got in my way, as it is wont to do (if you let it).

In ten years, I never once hung “Payment To The Master” on my walls, as much as I would have liked to. Because it was not mine. It was Bill’s, payment for his amazing and far superior work.

We lost touch for a long time, though I thought about him often. I called him a year and a half ago. We talked for an hour on the phone, catching up on our lives. It was a great talk, and I promised to pick a weekend when I could come up. Even with life’s storms calmed around me, I never did. I’ve had the words “Bill Howard” written on my To-Do white board in the kitchen for a year. This year for Christmas Linda and I finally sent Christmas cards out to folks, including Bill and Kate Howard.

Kate wrote us a letter in reply. Bill was dying. The doctors had given him six months to live but it did not seem like he had even that. I called their house, hoping to go visit him that weekend. Kate answered the phone and explained that he was not healthy enough for visitors at that time. She and I had a good talk, however, and we’ve kept in touch via email over the past couple of weeks.

On Monday, just after midnight (early this morning, as I first type this), my friend Bill passed away with Kate by his side (where she’d been through it all) and his family having come up to be with him all week, saying goodbye. I’m certain he is in a much better place, free of pain and worry and free of the past which likes to haunt us all. In God’s light forever. Happy. Propped up on a hill somewhere (if heaven has hills or oceans, which I like to think it does) and painting like a madman, waiting patiently for the day he will be reunited with those he left behind, making sure not to draw but to paint Paradise around him by blocking out shade and light and shapes and eventually stepping back and smiling at what appears.

During my weekend visit with him in Maine years ago, he took out this secret stash of Mereja (pronounced Mare-Uh-Jay… it’s French) painting medium , a lead-based solution which is illegal to purchase in the US because of the health hazards - it’s lead, after all. I asked him if he was worried about painting with this stuff. He smiled that broken smile of his and shrugged his shoulders. “Mereja medium is the best stuff for bringing out the colors, making them almost luminous on the canvas. If using it now and then means dying a little earlier, isn’t it worth it?”

In the end, he died too young. Using Mereja medium wasn’t the reason, though it did bring out the colors and depth of his paintings and gave him joy. Painting brought him joy, as did his family, his church and friends, prayer and people. He was a unique and Significant man. We wonder sometimes if we will make an impact on the world. When we do we’re missing the point. The impacts we make in this world happen to one person at a time. The best way, the only way, to have the most impact on others is to joyfully be the people God made us to be. Bill was not perfect. I’m not perfect. We have flaws and we’ll piss people off as much as we’ll raise them up. But even our flaws can become endearing (over time, sometimes) when we are as real and genuine a person as we can be to everyone we meet. Bill was that way. I’ve carried him with me since those days we worked together, and in many ways it has changed me, subtly effected what roads I’ve chosen at times, little decisions I’ve made, how I’ve interacted with others. I’ll miss him. For a guy I have seen only once in the past fifteen years or so, I sure do love him and will always treasure those parts of our friendship I’ve held close to my heart.

Bill, I’m sorry I never got to hand you your painting in person, but I hope you can see it now. I’ve just hung it up on my wall, where it will be a reminder of those days. Goodbye, my old friend. I’ll see you again.



Unknown said…
Dan, beautiful tribute to your friend Bill. How lucky you are to have known a man with such insight and wisdom. As usual, your writing makes me tear up and I find myself wishing I had known him too.
Love you, Auntie

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