Howard Dillard, father, mentor, friend,
"Yes Howard, what is it?" I asked my friend Howard Dillard on Tuesday when he called me.
He wanted to tell me that his first campaign ad was finished. How excited he was to be starting full speed his race for mayor of Clinton. He just wanted to tell someone that he was hopefully going to be the next mayor of Clinton. We talked by cell phone in mid-afternoon, on a day of puffy white clouds and soft sunshine.
He was traveling on Highway 123 and would call me tomorrow.
It was the next morning that my wife, Mary, got a call from Shannon Payne, our City Clerk. When she hung up, she said sit down. She then told me that Howard died last night in a car crash, somewhere in a field on KY 123. (Later I learned he had a heart attack.)
Whatever else her next words were, I didn't hear. My world froze. My friend, who hours before was planning his last campaign, was no more.
I first met Howard in 1964. He started Hickman County High School two years before me as a freshman, part of the first integrated class. Beginning our junior year, I was a new student as well.
I came to Hickman County from Jacksonville, Florida. The last school I attended had just under 3,000 students. My new school had around 400. Howard was one of the people who took me in and showed me how to enjoy life in a small rural high school.
He and I saw the rules and rebelled in our own ways against the status quo. In 1968, Howard sought to channel his frustrations with how slow government was moving to fix social problems. To add his voice to the issues of the day, Howard started his own community newspaper. It didn't last long, but it briefly gave him a platform.
After high school, destiny sent us on separate paths. Howard was drafted and went to Southeast Asia to fight in Vietnam. I became a planner and geographer leaving home for my career. As the years went by, we saw each other briefly at class reunions. When I moved back to Clinton, we reconnected and found our old friendship still strong.
Howard's time in the military confronting racism and death every day, changed him. He once told me that on the way to basic training, he and other African American draftees were instructed to keep the shades on the train drawn when going through Southern towns. When White soldiers got off the train to stretch their legs and get food, he was not allowed to do the same.
The years of battle left deep wounds and scars on his psyche. He worked to heal with love of family and community. Work, coaching and being there for his family became his focus.
He hadn't forgotten his passions for change from his high school days, so Howard sought change in local government. He ran for Clinton City Council and became the longest serving councilman.
And so, for Howard Dillard, his life had come full circle. From his views and campaigning for social reforms in 1968, to efforts to improve gas and water companies for Clinton, in many ways, Howard still carried the spirit of that young man in high school who dared to challenge the system. He tried twice to become Clinton's first Black mayor losing both races by hair thin margins. One race came down to a coin toss. But he was determined to try one more time in November 2022.
Howard was a big man. He stood tall with broad shoulders ready for engaging those who fought to block change. Yet, many of us saw him as a gentle giant, with his soft voice of compassion to always champion, those he called "the little people". He loved children and sports. Often, he would see me on the porch and stop by for a short visit on his way to a ballgame, to coach or watch young people play.
Howard Dillard was a man of his times, framed by good and painful experiences. He was a simple man in spirit, with love in his heart for family, community, and sometimes, even strangers who the angels had sent his way. He was a man with vision of the future having endured the pains of the past. He was true to himself, his family, his church, and his community.
In the end, the measure of a man is in his service to the ideas he stood for, his commitment to church and family, his call of duty when others hid and ran away from social responsibility. We measure a man through the prisms of his impact upon the people around him. He would change the times he lived in.
For me, (long pause to regain my composure) Howard Dillard was my friend and kindred spirit. If God gives each of us the chance to put a single brick onto the pathway of creation and life, then Howard Dillard worked overtime to put dozens of these bricks on our paths to better our way forward.
So long Howard, I miss you as I sit here on the porch wishing for one more visit. Go with God and the angels.
One last thought. A poem from T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom"
All men dream, but not equally.
Those men who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds,
wake in the day to find it was vanity.
But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men,
for they may act out their dreams with open eyes,
to make it possible.