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Spirit of longtime photographer still alive

Howdy Weber has been gone about two years now.

Maybe because I miss him, it seems longer.

But, oddly, the longtime Springfield News-Sun photographer stills seems very much alive to me, too.

I thought of Howdy again a couple of weeks back while writing a play about the 30th anniversary of Newsweek’s American Dream issue focused on Springfield.

The edition came out in the spring of 1983. Although focusing on five Springfield families, it included stories about others. One involved Howdy’s older daughter, Valerie, and the counter-culture currents of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A traditional girl through most of her growing up, Newsweek reported how her bedroom had gone from Beatles to Jimi Hendrix in the early ’70s, and her North High School cheer-leading outfit from a point of pride to something stashed away in her closet. I’m sure Valerie and I both had the same “Are You Experienced?” album.

I met Howdy and his wife Eleanor’s younger daughter, Vicki, before I met Valerie or them. Also a former North cheerleader, Vicki was a year behind me at Wittenberg University, and was what I back then called my “sheep,” the students to whom I was an unsteady teaching assistant in Political Science 101.

The moment I saw Howdy, I knew the source of Vicki’s brightness.

Gradually, I got to know him.

I found out about his childhood friendship with Johnny Winters, as he called him. I saw the picture of the two of them in choir uniforms on the steps of Christ Episcopal Church and, in a glance, understood how they got in trouble speaking in fake German accents a couple of years later while on a bus ride to Wright Field.

I learned how a wave of history of the sort that swept his daughter’s cheer-leading outfit into the closet had put Howdy in a bomber, then in a German Prisoner of War camp when he was not much older than a high-schooler himself.

Then came his return to Springfield and 37 years spent as a photographer at the News-Sun.

I remember his deep devotion both to olives marinated in martinis and his wife Eleanor’s scalloped potatoes. The latter gave Howdy the unshakable belief that Polish women were the best cooks in the world.

He liked to tell the story about his father’s trip into the hills of Tennessee to shoot the 1919 wedding of World War I hero Sgt. Alvin York.

And he was a great storyteller.

“You know, Tom-O,” he’d say, his eyes focused and his arms folded in front of him, resting on a modest paunch …

Howdy had the kind of innate interest in things that made for a good journalist and a bad driver. We’d get out on the story, and he’d listen in on the interview, often joining the conversation. He was always helpful, knowing, on average, two out of every three people I was interviewing.

He’d then discuss the matter with the same intensity in the car on the way back, maintaining a constancy of eye contact with me that made me wonder who he thought was steering the car down the road.

Photographer Sam Oliver told me of the days when no event could start without Howdy. That included the grand opening of the International Harvester Plant on Urbana Road. The governor and corporate big wigs from Chicago might have been gathered at the plant at the appointed hour, but festivities couldn’t begin until Howdy, who was running late, arrived.

I also loved the way Howdy complained, turning the phrase “sons of bitches” with such refinement that it sounded like an audition for a role on “Downton Abbey.”

Howdy retired just a few years into my work life here. But I saw him regularly because I lived just three blocks north of him, and, often enough, he’d be on his morning retirement rounds as I was walking out to my car to go to work.

So he’d roll down the window, and we’d talk for a bit.

Often enough, he’d mention a story I wrote, then tell me the rest of the story as he knew it. Every once in a while I’d write about some detail he’d not heard of before. I knew then that I’d done a good job.

I also knew, of course, that he’d die someday, but when it happened a couple of Januaries ago, it surprised me nonetheless.

For although his eyes grew a little tired, Howdy always walked around as if his soul had been possessed at birth by a rambunctious 14-year-old who’d never allow him to really grow up, much less old.

His daughters told me that when Howdy learned the doctors could do no more for him that he stayed very much in character saying, “Well, that’s the show.”

Still, when I go out to the curb some mornings to go to work, the show seems to go on.

I imagine his car coasting to a stop, the driver’s side window rolling down, and Howdy peering out at me.

Then a voice speaks, Howdy is alive and I am “Tom-O” once again.

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