Bill Howard claims he can’t remember every little detail anymore, but it’s hard to believe that’s true.
Ask the right question – about his grandchild, his wife, or his long career as a volunteer firefighter – and he will lean in close to make sure he hears each word. Suddenly, his brilliant blue eyes will open wide, maybe because he’s reliving the answer.
“I’ve had a good life,” he said. “I can’t deny it …. What more can I ask?”
Howard, a World War II Navy veteran, has been a member of the Owings Mills Volunteer Fire Company for 70 years, a feat of longevity that led the company to name the firehouse’s meeting room after him in early January.
Howard, 89, likes to say he’s lucky. He's healthy and has never experienced any close calls on the job.
“It’s nice when you put out a fire, and you didn’t lose a life,” Howard said. “You lost a building, but not a life.”
It’s not the time that Howard has spent that has endeared him to his fellow volunteers, according to the company’s captain. It’s the way Howard has spent the time.
“There’s nothing better than experience,” said volunteer fire Capt. Ed Schwartz. “It’s good to have someone who can tell you, not just what something is, but why it is the way it is.
“He can tell you every part of Owings Mills. There’s nothing better than experience.”
If not for a couple of twists and turns over the course of almost 90 years, the company and the community may have been without that experience.
Change of Course
Howard lived with his mother and father on the 300-acre family farm in Owings Mills until he was 13, when his mother died.
Howard and his father moved in with Howard’s grandmother just off Gwynnbrook Avenue, and his father began working on another farm. “Most of this area (in northwest Baltimore County) was farm country, really,” Howard said.
While a student at Franklin High School, Howard was a member of the 4-H Club. He decided he would like to attend the agriculture school at the University of Maryland.
At the same time, he and his childhood friend, Andrew Hubbard, both had an affinity for the local volunteer fire company. Howard remembered the two would sit in class waiting to hear a siren.
“If the siren went off, we’d skip class and help them,” Howard said, laughing.
By the time he was 18, Howard and Hubbard joined the volunteer company in Owings Mills. He remembers the day well – Dec. 8, 1941 – just one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The start of the United States’ involvement in World War II would change Howard’s plans.
In 1943, Howard was drafted into the military. Rather than serve in the Army, he asked the head of the local draft board – a friend of Howard’s father – if he could enlist in the Navy.
He spent the better part of the next three years on the U.S.S. Cabot, an aircraft carrier.
By the time Howard returned home in 1946, it was too late to be thinking about school. He never applied to the University of Maryland.
"I’d like to have a degree," Howard said. "Unfortunately, I don’t.”
But Howard said he wouldn’t have wanted the degree in lieu of his military service.
“I don’t regret that,” he said.
The New Path
After being called into service in Korea as a member of the Navy reserves, Howard settled back in Baltimore County in 1952.
The Navy had given him $300 and wished him luck. He didn’t even have civilian clothes that fit.
But Howard returned to the volunteer fire company, taking up the post his father had assumed while the younger Howard served in the military. Back then, the only equipment the company had was one engine and an old ladder truck, and Howard was sure to be riding one of the pieces when a fire call went out.
“We used to have a lot of barn fires, and we’d be there all night,” Howard said.
But Howard did more than help put out fires. He helped run the company carnival too, he said, and that’s where he caught the attention of Thelma.
The two had actually known each other before Howard left for the Navy. But they became reacquainted through a mutual friend, and it wasn’t long before Thelma started coming to the carnival regularly after she got off work.
The two married in 1953, built a house in Reisterstown in 1955 and had two children, Ann and Mark.
Howard worked as an inspector for Baltimore County’s Bureau of Highways, where he spent 36 years while still going on runs with the Owings Mills fire volunteers.
"It seems like he was always there," Mark Howard, 51, said. "It seemed he'd spend at least two nights each week down at the firehouse.
"I never joined because it seemed like a lot of work."
Mark sees his father every couple of weekends, when he drives to Reisterstown from Cambridge to spend the weekend in the house where he grew up.
His sister, Ann Kramb, 53, lives in Eldersburg with her husband, Jim, and daughter, Sarah, 17, whom Bill Howard admits he spoils.
“He taught us to be a hard worker, an honest human being,” Kramb said. “My parents live by those rules they made. They taught it to my brother, too, and I feel like we follow along in their footsteps.”
Bill and Thelma also made sure their children made plans to go to college, Kramb said, after Bill Howard was stripped of that chance by World War II.
“My parents always insisted my brother and I get a college education," she said. "They meant it with every breath. We both did it without question."
Her father worked a lot of long hours, Kramb said. But she said there weren’t any hard feelings about the time Bill Howard spent at work, at the firehouse, or volunteering at the Glyndon United Methodist Church.
“He was a very hard worker,” she said. “He always wanted people to do the right thing. He would do the right thing and he would expect them to do the same thing.”
For Bill Howard, doing the right thing meant being generous with his time.
“[Thelma] didn’t mind me getting up in the middle of the night and going to the fire,” Howard said. Sometimes, she would even wake him up if she heard the siren first.
Howard’s wife, 82, is in a nursing home in Sykesville.
She remembers her husband – just not in the present day, he said. He visits her every other day, bringing her freshly washed dresses each week.
He lives in the home they began sharing in Reisterstown in 1955, and he takes solace in the one place he can.
“That keeps me going, by still going to the firehouse,” Howard said. “It just takes my mind off of stuff.”
Wayne Trump, president of the Owings Mills Volunteer Fire Company, said Howard has become an inspiration to other members of the company, especially rookies.
“If someone [89 years old] can do it, then there’s no reason why these young guys can’t.”
Trump, himself a 50-year veteran of the company, says it has gotten harder each year to maintain membership. Reasons vary, but now young volunteers have families and demanding jobs that don’t afford them the time to stay with the company. In the old days, Owings Mills wasn’t developed as it is now.
“The firehouse was a center of a community,” Trump said. “And, it’s not now.”
That's why young volunteers need examples like Howard, he said. Ed Schwartz, the fire company's new captain, agreed.
Schwartz said he remembers one bitterly cold night several years ago when the company was conducting its annual Christmas tree sale.
It must have been about 10 degrees, Schwartz said, and cars and trucks had stopped pulling into the station to pick up trees much earlier in the night. Most volunteers retreated to the warmth of the firehouse.
But Howard stayed. The sale went until 10 p.m., and the hour had not yet come.
“There’s a reason he’s stayed [with the fire company],” Schwartz said. “If you’re not having fun with it, you won’t do it for long.”
It’s simple for Howard. The volunteers at the firehouse have become like a second family, and whether he’s assisting that family or responding to those who look to the fire company for help, he said he feels like he’s accomplishing something, even though he doesn't respond directly to fires anymore.
“It’s in your blood, I think,” Howard said. “You want to help your fellow man as much as you can.”
Just shy of his 90th birthday, Howard doesn’t seem ready to call it quits, either. He still drives over to the firehouse several times a week.
“I thought if I was there 25 years, that’d be great,” Howard said. “I really love the place. It’s been quite an experience.”