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Devotion, hard work earn Howard a Massey

William Lawrence Howard Jr. stands in the office doorway, braced for his interview. A ball cap frames his grinning face, and his arms are deeply tanned up to his rolled shirtsleeves. Steady blue eyes, sandy-blond hair and neatly trimmed mustache and beard complete the picture.

A man who seems at ease with himself, he strikes up easy friendships with everyone he meets. The cliché holds true: He doesn’t seem to know a stranger.

Up until this spring, maintenance man Howard worked in the residence halls that make up Spencer Triad, and it was a grateful group of 134 Spencer students who signed a petition nominating him for the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Winning the Massey typically shocks its recipients. The nomination process itself is kept confidential, and then one day out of nowhere, the call comes to each winner from Chancellor James Moeser.

In Howard’s case, though, he doesn’t have an office or desk or telephone, so what he got was a scrap of paper telling him to dial a certain number. “I was on break when I called,” he said. “I was in the service room over by Cobb dorm, and I was told to make the call, and I went in there to use the telephone, and that’s who it was, was the chancellor. Well, at first I thought it was a joke.”

Howard had good cause to wonder, because he delights in orchestrating practical jokes on co-workers and always has to watch his back for the inevitable retaliation. Nevertheless, when he spoke with Barbara Leonard, administrative secretary to the chancellor, she assured him he was actually speaking with someone in the chancellor’s office — but he was pretty sure they had the wrong guy. “I even asked them, `Are you sure you’ve got the right William Howard?'” he recalled. “After all, there is another William Howard who works in Facilities.”

Once connected to the chancellor and convinced he really was getting the award, Moeser dropped the other bomb: “Then he was telling me before I hung up about the [$5,000] check that came with it, too, and I went, `Shooo,'” he said. “It shocked me.”

Howard’s Massey Award citation captures well the sum of the man: “Cheerfulness, a capacity for spontaneous humor and undoubted devotion to the 485-student community he serves so well make him an example of outstanding good citizenship and caring participation in the University community.”

A man with a positive attitude, Howard has almost nothing but good things to say about his students. His tasks change every day depending on their requests for service. He handles day-to-day repairs and when the need arises refers others to specialized shops.

What’s the worst problem he typically encounters in the residence halls? Before answering, he stops to praise the students and how they care for school property, but admits, “Some of them can get kinda wild. Like we have a problem with them tearing screens out,” he said. “They raise the window up and cut a hole in the screen so they can throw their cigarettes out or throw their keys out or something. I’ve fixed them,” he said, “and then the next day they’ll be torn. It’s frustrating, but you’ve still got to keep doing it.”

Setting priorities

Howard’s Massey citation praises his service to the University during the blizzard of 2000, but initially for him, family came first.

Howard’s a man who loves his family, and his immediate family, right now, includes his fiancée Linda, with whom he shares a home. They’ve been engaged since Christmas, and Howard regrets that he had to struggle to get down on the traditional bended knee to pop the question. He tried to do it the old-fashioned way, but a brace preventing further damage to a knee injury kept him from being graceful about it. But it didn’t keep Linda from saying yes.

After the snowstorm, it took him some time before he was able to shovel out of his driveway in Goldston — an hour away even in good weather — so he and Linda’s nine-year-old grandson made good use of their time. Without electricity to power their refrigerator, they used what they had, which was lots of snow, and combined necessity and fun to build an igloo in the yard to serve as an ice box.

Then it was time to head for Carolina. Once he made it to the University, Howard’s first priority was his second family — his students — and coaxing the on-again, off-again heat to keep working in his residence halls. Typical of his modest ways, he insists on giving credit to others on his team who live closer to Chapel Hill than he, and who managed to get in sooner.

But it takes a special talent to do a job with the bigger picture in mind, and that’s one of the skills for which he also was commended in his Massey presentation.

As the story goes, Howard had been assigned to fix a jammed lavatory window that a housekeeper couldn’t get open, and “it took a lot of perseverance to get the coats and coats and coats of paint off, and being a bathroom, it had swelled up,” he said. Rather than just repair the window and go on to his next job, though, he considered that the housekeeper’s real problem was breathing in strong fumes from her cleaning products. That’s why she tried to open the window in the first place.

So Howard thought to check the room’s exhaust fan, and when he found it was broken, he checked the other fan in the building, too, only to find it also wasn’t working.

Another example of his dedication is cited in his Massey award: “During the replacement of air conditioning units in Kenan this year, concerned for the comfort of residents, he worked one entire weekend and from six in the morning until dark for days afterward until the project was completed.”

Learning as you go

Howard’s first job at Carolina, now almost 19 years ago, was trimming shrubs, “and then I got into laying brick, and then I got into maintenance,” he said.

Most of his training was on-the-job. “When I first came to work here,” he said, “my supervisor, Walter Dunsmore, told me that I asked more questions than anybody ever had. But that’s the only way you’re going to learn anything is to ask questions.”

Of his award, Howard insists on spreading the credit around. “We’re all like a big family,” he said of his co-workers. “None of this couldn’t have been done without the help from everybody else.” His gravelly voice rises and falls for emphasis: “You know it’s a team thing, and that’s really the way everybody should look at it. It’s hard to take credit for everything when you’ve got other people helping you. They should get some of the credit, too.”

Maintenance supervisor in Shop 594 is Curtis Wilson, and he relies on Howard, “his lead man,” to be a “jack of all trades. I have total confidence in him to do any of the jobs” that crop up, he said. In addition, “He’s well-liked and he gets along great with all his co-workers,” Curtis added.

But Howard’s best quality, in Wilson’s opinion, is that “He’s a creator. Besides maintenance, he does a lot of bricklaying and plumbing as well. But if we’ve got a problem and something we’re trying to figure out, he’s the creator. He’s going to think it through and he’ll come up with a great idea for making it work.”

Ethel Pugh, mid-region zone manager for Housekeeping Services, was there when Wilson was talking about Howard. And she was happy to chime in with her two cents worth about him, too. “I’ve found out he’s a great guy to work with,” she said. “I’ve never heard anyone say anything but positive things about him. We [and a crew of the maintenance workers] have lunch together, and they’re always wanting to pitch in and help us out.” And Howard’s willingness to help even carries over to his time off. Pugh said he went to her house after hours not long ago to work on her kitchen sink.

Inherited skills

Growing up in White Cross, west of Chapel Hill, Howard remembers as a child being “a diehard Tar Heel fan.” He expressed his devotion by crafting footstools onto which he painted a ram’s head and in big letters: “Tar Heel.” Now, as a hobby, he’s “got a yard full” of original birdhouses he’s constructed, including one “painted red with green ivy all around it, one painted like a house, one painted like a rock house, and one that’s like a seafood restaurant.” “I just love to work with my hands,” he said.

Not too long ago, Howard decided it was time to try his hand at a new medium. He bought canvases and tubes of acrylic paints and began painting landscapes — “scenes,” he calls them. He is happiest with one that includes the vista from the vantage point of the pier he built: the pond, the yard and Linda’s period house.

His artistic expression surely comes as no surprise to his family. He was always drawing as a child and even made a little money selling his drawings to other kids on the school bus.

And there’s not much doubt where Howard got his artistic eye and skill as a craftsman. It comes straight down the line from his grandfather, to his father and to him. His grandfather was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. His father, Lawrence Howard, was a carpenter’s supervisor at UNC Hospitals, and he drew portraits of his wife and children. “And I guess some of the blood got in me,” Howard said.

Perhaps Howard himself sums up just what it is about him that’s deserving of the Massey award when he speaks about his art. “Anybody can do anything if they just put their mind to it,” he said. “You’ve just got to want to do it. And I’m the type person I’ve just got to stay busy doing something. I’m not going to sit around and sleep my life away.”


The dictionary describes synchronicity as a coincidence of events that seem to be meaningfully related. And Howard thinks a lot of things have come together lately that seem like they’re meant to be.

There’s his choice of careers. Once out of high school, he spent a short time trying to make a go of running a grocery and tackle shop near Jordan Lake, but ultimately has settled into the vocation and avocations for which he appears destined.

In what might be seen as dramatic foreshadowing, shortly before he won the Massey, Howard was promoted to Maintenance Mechanic IV, and that caused his reassignment to Graham and Aycock residence halls. Aycock just happens to be the hall served by Martha Crocker Johnson — a 2000 Massey award winner herself.

And one has to wonder if the ground in White Cross swelled with pride for just a second one day back in the spring, when not one, but two of its own received phone calls telling them they’d won Massey awards.

Was it a coincidence that William Howard, maintenance mechanic IV, and Pat Crawford, attorney and assistant to the vice chancellor for finance and administration, who have widely disparate careers and responsibilities at Carolina, both were honored with Masseys in the same year?

Howard grew up in the White Cross house that Crawford’s then future father-in-law owned, and Crawford and her husband live there now. Howard wonders if it’s changed much since the time he recalls being able to climb out his window as a young boy, sit on the roof “and look right out at the road.”

That’s not their only connection. Crawford’s father-in-law supervised Howard father at UNC Hospitals, and when he retired, Howard’s “daddy got his job.”

After about a half an hour of talking about himself, Howard grows a little restless. He left his crew with some assignments but starts to worry that they’ll finish up and be standing around with nothing to do. As he leaves to get back to the job, he pauses in the doorway, the picture of a hardworking man.

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 26, 2001

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