Counting My Blessings As I Turn 75

Today is April Fools Day. Seventy-five years ago on this day I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, to the son of a banker, who himself was the son of a banker, and to a mother whose father owned the two largest Ford dealerships in the country and was a millionaire many times over before his drinking got the best of him and he died penniless toward the end of the Great Depression, his body found in an alley in Chicago.

Today I am counting my blessings. This is what we old folks do when we reach milestones like this. Don’t be fooled. It is hard for anyone at this advanced stage in life not to ask silently, How many more years have I got left—ten, twelve? How many good years—five or six? One of my mother’s favorite sayings was “life is too short.” She got that one exactly right. Where did it all go? It just seemed like yesterday….

One of my favorite sayings is that what life is all about is how you play the cards you have been dealt. We all know that all hands do not contain the same cards. I could have been born to a destitute family in Bangladesh or to a single parent struggling with a heroine addiction, trying to get by in a poverty stricken neighborhood in Chicago or Baltimore. But I wasn’t. I was dealt a fabulous hand and for this I am profoundly grateful. I have been blessed.

So here are my cards:

  1. Growing up in the United States of America. Embry and I have done a lot of traveling, and between the two of us have visited something like sixty countries. There are a lot of great countries on this small planet, but the U.S. is special with our diversity, optimism, and belief in individual freedom and the American Dream that anyone can make it who tires hard. Of course, that is not entirely true for everyone, but the country I was born and grew up in still represents something special on this planet. (My blog obsession in writing about Trump is due to my fear that this is being threatened, but enough of that for today.)
  2. Two loving parents, grounded in their community, civic minded, and with strong values and deep religious convictions—especially my mother. They always supported me, and I knew they always loved me. When I became something of a persona non grata when I got involved in the Civil Rights Movement, they never blinked an eye. When at Nashville cocktail parties, a friend would console my mother with a comment like, “It’s not your fault that he turned out the way he did and you should not feel responsible,” she would respond with,”Well actually we are very proud of our son.”
  3. A strong marriage to a strong, independent-minded woman who shared my values and interests. I still am amazed we married so young, but that is what people did in those days before the sexual revolution. We were basically children. I was twenty-three, and Embry (or “Mimy” as she was known in those days) was barely twenty. What this meant was that we grew up together and changed together. (When we married I had no idea that my young wife would become an ardent feminist. In fact there was no such thing in 1965.) We lived with a black family in Georgia in the Civil Rights Movement. We experienced the magic of living in New York City in the mid 60s and we had our year in 1970 living on “Clay Street.” (The book that came out of that is now in its 45th year with a third edition coming out in two weeks.) We started our careers together in Washington and lived for 44 years in an old “granny house” in Cleveland Park, a DC neighborhood that must be one of the best in world. We have had more adventures than anyone could ask for—sailing all over the world, our around-the-world-no airplanes adventure, and travels to so many exotic and interesting countries.
  4. Our children and grandchildren. As some of you may know, we lost our first child, Katherine, who died at age eleven months from a heart defect. That card was not a good one, but behind that came Andrew, now 47 and Jessica, now 43, who have married wonderful people, produced four of the world’s greatest grandchildren, have solid careers, strong values, and are doing great things.
  5. My friends. I am what might be called a pathological extrovert. Friends are enormously important, and I have been blessed with the best anyone could ask for. I still keep up with friends from high school, college, two graduate schools, and with our neighborhood and work friends and others we have met along the way. This includes, of course, my three first cousins and their families, Embry’s first cousins, and her two brothers and their families and their children and children’s children. So friends and extended family are very important part of any hand of cards, and I am profoundly grateful for these people that have meant so much to me over the years and still do.
  6. My work. Work is such an important thing when you think about how many hours of the day that is what you do. I had some trouble figuring out what I wanted to do at first. Because of my parent’s active faith and leadership roles at Christ Episcopal Church in Nashville, I was sort of programmed to become an Episcopal priest and at one point was convinced that is what I wanted to do. After graduating from Davidson, I attended Union Seminary in New York City where I got a Masters of Divinity degree. I like to tell people that I was excluded from ministry by an old-school bishop, who exclaimed at one of our meetings, “Hell, son, you don’t belong as a priest. You don’t even believe in God!” To which my response was, “Since when did THAT ever keep any one out of the Episcopal ministry?”

But that is actually fake news. We did have a meeting of the minds that my interests were less about church stuff and more on civil rights, the peace movement and rebuilding our inner cities. This was in 1968 when the lower income neighborhoods in many cities were in fact burning down, and the Vietnam War was raging. So following seminary I went to the School of City and Regional Planning at UNC Chapel Hill, and the rest is history. It could not have been a better fit or place for me and pointed me to what became a very fulfilling career.

I worked in the field of real estate and housing development. I had fabulous early jobs where I learned on the job and then started Howell Associates in 1981. The company provided real estate development services to developers of affordable housing and seniors housing and grew to about 25 people in the late 1990s when I sold the practice to a larger Philadelphia Company. That I actually was able to sell the company, I contend, was de facto proof of a benign deity. I loved the work and I loved starting and growing a small company. After the sale, I worked off a non compete requirement, reinvented myself as an advisor and did some teaching at the University of Maryland and George Washington University. How lucky can you be to have had such interesting and challenging work and with so many great people?

  1. My extra curricula activities. My three major interests have been photography, sailing and writing. I have pursued each one with as much vigor and enthusiasm as I have pursued my work. I still cruise and race a sailboat—this one is a Jeanneau 39, named “Second Wind.” I am still writing as all you blog followers know, and in June I will host a 50 Year retrospective of my photographs. Mark your calendars for June 24 if you live in the area.
  2. My health. I put this last on the list, but it would well be first. Health is so important. I had a fairly severe case of polio in the early 1950s, which kept me sidelined for two years and affected my life in many ways—almost all for the better. I became much more sensitive to people who were suffering and attribute my polio experience for my bleeding heart values. And my entire adult life I have been a physical fitness fanatic and extremely grateful to have had only minor symptoms associated with post polio syndrome. Like most people I have had health issues from time to time but have (more or less) come through them all and am still going (pretty) strong at age 75.

So count me as one of the lucky ones. I was dealt a pretty damn good hand. At the same time I have tried to play my cards as best as I can though, God knows, I have made my share of mistakes and have had my share of times struggling with one issue or another. Life is not easy for anyone. It is and will always remain a mystery. The meaning of life has always been a bit of an obsession for me—particularly as a young man—and I have struggled with doubt and belief my whole life. Embry and I have always been active and committed church goers, but I have never maintained I had or have all the answers. I continue to be a seeker. Though the end my short time on this planet is a lot closer than it was when I was in my twenties and the mere thought of death freaked me out, oddly that does not seem to be a threat any more. When you get to age 75 you have run your race. You have given it your best shot and to use the card game metaphor, you have let the chips fall. If you are lucky like me, you are profoundly grateful for all the blessings that you have received, and for this I give thanks to God.


20 thoughts on “Counting My Blessings As I Turn 75

  1. Happy birthday, Joe! Looking forward to spending some of it with you, and feeling blessed and honored to be able to do so.


  2. Joe… I so enjoyed reading this. It does sound to me like you are LIVING WITH AN ABIDING SENSE OF WELL BEING, Well done.


  3. Happy birthday, Joe! I enjoyed reading your thoughtful piece. Today is also the second birthday of our little grandson.

    Hope to see you and Embry soon, on one coast or the other.


  4. Very well told.
    And I made it to the bitter end. which wasn’t really bitter at all.
    But a few short words from the end, there is a word that would have put poor
    Ms Lowry and Dr Goodykoontz, who are both my loving idols for teachers in shock.
    ” metaphore”
    How could you misspell one of their favorite words?
    It’s like misspelling city plannning, or Cannoeing on the Canny Firk, or Davisson Collage,
    or Mountgomery Beel Acadamy. How could you? Hoppy 75th berthday, I had mine, it was good too.

  5. Happy birthday Dad!! Wishing you all the best from Uganda, where Mom and I saw lots of poverty today but also lots of smiles, vibrant energy and natural beauty. Thanks for this great piece.

  6. Happy birthday Joe! It’s been a privilege to have known you for 48 of those years since our days at UNC DCRP!
    I LOOK forward to seeing your photography retrospective.

  7. Bon anniversaire, jeune homme !
    “Grateful”,” grateful “! Not enough my Joe! You forgot a very important thing : you are born in a young country !
    l can tell you it’s not enviable to be French in 2017 ! Old gods and young devils worm their way in many minds. But you are American, sh !
    And spring is beautiful : Joyeux anniversaire et ma grande affection à Embry-Mimy, Andrew et tous mes chéris de la famille.

  8. Yep, yep, and yep. With my own 75th coming up a week from tomorrow I find that in many ways I could say “ditto” to describe my own feelings of thanksgiving, not surprising since we more or less grew up together. And we are still growing up more or less together. So join me now in a Martini, up, with a hint of dirt, as we contemplate what we have to look forward to just over the Great Divide.

  9. Joe this is so luminous and delightful there is a trail of light behind it a path which is endless

    it keeps going on and out into the universe

  10. Joe,
    Beautifully written (as always) and on point. Life is all about what you do with the cards you are dealt and recognizing when you are being dealt a bad hand (often times no one’s fault) and a great hand (sometimes just to good fortune). Understanding this keeps one from playing the victim, and on the flip side, creates gratefulness and compassion.
    Peace my brother. I have been blessed to know you AND Embry!

  11. In the spirit of continued celebration, HAPPY B IRTHDAY MR. HOWELL!
    Truly a post filled with gratitude.
    Here’s wishing you all the best!


  12. The best so far, Joe! And so many of the responses affirm this. You echo of my own thoughts in what is my 75th (almost 76th) year too! It was a great day when we first me in the LES and it has been a fabulous and full-filling friendship!

  13. Thanks to Roger and Geraldine and to all who have commented on this very personal post. I am deeply grateful. I may even try to intersperse my ravings about how awful Trump is with some lessons learned over the years. The primary motivation for doing the blog is simply that it keeps me from getting bored and it keeps me out of trouble. And I love doing it. That many of you read it and at times find it worthwhile is especially gratifying. Thanks to all!

  14. Dearest Uncle Joe,
    Wow!! In my historical research, I have had the opportunity to read quite a few short autobiographical pieces. This is the singularly most inspirational, most insightful and truest to life I have ever read! It is what I would say about you if I had the talent.
    This piece reminds me : You make everyone who knows you proud to be associated with you. I feel especially blessed by the radical optimism and radient goodwill that I have always experienced in your presence. Thank you for writing this piece, for finding this way to share of your wise gratitude with those who love you, and we are very many!

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