My 80th Birthday: Four Surprises

Milestone birthdays in the Howell family have typically been the occasions for surprises. On my 40th Embry and I climbed Old Rag Mountain in western Virginia followed by dinner at the Graves Mountain Lodge with my parents and Embry’s mother and our two children, ages 12 and eight. On that occasion we were also joined by about a  half dozen close friends who showed up to my complete surprise. On my 50th our daughter, Jessica, invited me to a quiet dinner with her where we would be joined later by Embry. Our son, Andrew, was away in college. The restaurant was located in the heart of artsy Takoma Park in DC with lots of art galleries. We passed by one gallery, which was crowded with people viewing framed, black and white photographs on the walls. I took a second look through the large gallery window from the street and recognized a lot of friends, which for a moment puzzled me. Then I realized that the exhibit was showing my photographs!  Andrew was dressed up in a white, tux shirt and black bowtie and serving drinks. Jessica, who responsible for this surprise, was sheepishly giggling. Everyone applauded when we entered the gallery followed by a boisterous singing of “Happy Birthday.” On the 60th we were in the BVIs sailing with Jessica, her husband, Peter, Andrew, and his girlfriend at the time, so there were no surprises though we had a fabulous cruise for the week. And on the 70th we were in London visiting Andrew, who was working there at the time, his wife Karen and their daughter, Sadie, where we were joined on my birthday by several surprise guests–dear friends, Roger and Geraldine, who lived near Liverpool, Sam, my college roommate, and his wife, Diane, then Jessica and Peter, and their two children. I think there were also a couple of others. I can’t remember all the details or how they all were able to show up in London. But it was quite a party and quite a weekend.

So, with that kind of history, you would expect another surprise on a milestone 80th birthday, right? Well, not me. Everyone is still recovering  as covid-time is winding down. Large gatherings are still discouraged, and besides we had just seen our children and grandchildren the weekend before. This time there would be no surprises. I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. The plan was to have a quiet dinner with Embry at the Capital Grill, an upscale steakhouse not far from the Capitol, and be done with it.

The morning of my birthday, April Fool’s Day, I checked my email to see a message from “Kudoboard,” a sender I was not familiar with. I clicked on it. For the better part of an hour, I read the birthday comments and viewed photographs from dear friends from all over the country and the world—over fifty people—and was overwhelmed. Surprise Number One. Embry had an early morning commitment and was not around when I viewed the birthday wishes, reminisces, and photos  on my iPhone. When she returned, I viewed them all again with her, this time using the desktop computer. We both were in tears. Many of you who are reading this, I suspect, contributed. I am profoundly grateful and humbled. The mastermind behind all this was Andrew and I remain in awe that he could pull this off.

The rest of the day was quiet until dinner at the Capital Grill. When we were escorted to our table, there were Andrew and Jessica! What were they doing here? Andrew had come down from Maplewood, NJ on Amtrack, and Jessica had flown down from Portland, Maine. Well beyond the call of duty though I was very touched that they made the effort. Surprise Number Two.

Following a terrific meal, we returned to our apartment where both children would spend the night. Before we all turned in, Andrew beckoned me to turn on my computer where he typed in “Joseph Toy Howell III” and up popped  a Wikipedia page featuring meSurprise Number Three. Now this may not seem like a big deal to you, but for me it was huge. I do not recall saying anything to my kids about this, but for a long time my heart’s desire had been to be listed in Wikipedia. In fact, I once even had a dream that I typed my name in, and there I was. If you make it onto Wikipedia, then you must be famous or at least notable, right? As Embry will tell you, I have always wanted to be famous or notable. Of course, the challenge was that I was—and am—neither, but somehow my son cobbled together enough “accomplishments” that Joseph Toy Howell III passed the Wikipedia test. Apparently, there are still “citations” that they require, which might mean the page will fade away into the ether, but for one shining moment, there I was on Wikipedia. Me. Joseph Toy Howell III. My life is now complete.

But I must tell you that making it onto a Wikipedia page is one thing. Having your son think you are worthy enough to be there and figuring out how to make that happen is something else. That is the real story here and what I am most proud of and grateful for.

I went to bed the evening of April 1 feeling appreciated and affirmed and grateful for the 80 years I have spent on this fragile planet.

But there was one more surprise to come and that occurred the following morning when Jessica insisted that we walk up to the Washington National Cathedral where one of her close friends, a singer and artist and also a friend of ours, was performing with some group she is in. Any normal person would think there was something fishy about a performance in the Bishop’s Garden adjacent to the cathedral at ten in the morning, but not me. Andrew and I, followed by Embry, walked up to the cathedral from our apartment (about a mile and a half) arriving just after 10 where there was no evidence of any performance but a lot of evidence of Surprise Number Four—dear friends, mainly from the neighborhood, and dear relatives–packed into the gazebo in the Bishop’s Garden with yet another round of “Happy Birthday,” coffee, bagels and, of course, a birthday cake. The weather was perfect with temperatures in the mid 60s, no wind, a Carolina blue sky and the garden in its spring splendor with cherry blossoms bursting out everywhere. This event was planned and executed by Jessica Ellis, the very same Jessica, who 30 years before pulled off perhaps the biggest of all surprise birthday events at the Takoma Park art gallery.

Folks, I have been blessed. There is nothing more to add.




6 thoughts on “My 80th Birthday: Four Surprises

  1. Joe,
    You are well loved. Cannot wait to visit the Wikipedia page.
    With gratitude for your friendship.

  2. We can all now turn to doing some advance planning for a surprise 90th birthday party!

  3. A wonderful litany of well-deserved honors, tributes and surprises. Not to mention a wonderful, devoted family. Joe, you are blessed and deserve it all. Cheers, Larry

  4. Joe, this is all wonderful! I just read the Wikipedia article and am so impressed! Of course, I knew about your accomplishments, but I didn’t know that your middle name was “Toy, ” I’d love to hear the story about that!
    Much Love,

    1. It was because I was SO cute as a baby.
      Actually it was a family name on my father’s side. That is why I am the “third” which I never use. It was somebody’s last name but I am not sure who. For my birthday Embry gave me a genealogy testing kit. This is good reason to use it!

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