For some, history is a study. For others, it is something more.
It takes them to places and times they have never seen, introduces them to figures they have never known and fills them with memories of events they have never experienced. The facts are not what captivate them. Rather, it is the intrigue of knowing ideas, people and events that stretch beyond one’s lifetime.
For 52 years, 12 of which were at Jewell, Dr. Thomas Howell has taught history and, for 52 years, history is what has driven him. While Howell’s dedication to history is as unshakable now as it was when he first started, a career in history was not Howell’s first choice. Instead, he was poised to select a different path.
“When I came out of high school, I was aiming to be a chemical engineer,” Howell said. “However, upon entering college, I discovered calculus. Or, calculus discovered me.”
Howell’s brief brush with calculus caused him to move away from chemical engineering. As he thought about what to pursue next, he turned to an area that had previously caught his attention.
“When I was in high school, I was picked for a state history competition. I didn’t study, didn’t even think about it and won the state,” Howell said. “When I dropped calculus and started rethinking my options, it occurred to me that history was easy and math wasn’t. Once I started looking at it, I got fascinated by it. But in other words, I kind of backed into it because it came easily and I remembered things and put things together and so forth,” Howell said.
With 52 years of hindsight, Howell believes he made the right decision.
“I am quite confident, very confident, that I am a better college professor of history than I would’ve been a chemical engineer,” Howell said.
As a historian, Howell has had the opportunity to engage a variety of different topics. However, the Second World War, specifically, had always fascinated him. The son of a Baptist preacher’s daughter and a soldier, Howell himself was a product of the war, which left a significant impact on him.
“Growing up as a child, I was kind of curious about this. I didn’t have a father because of World War Two. I had always been vaguely interested in it,” Howell said.
However, once he began studying history in college, his fascination with World War Two shifted from mere curiosity to intellectual obsession.
“It started out wondering why I didn’t have a father, and then it morphed into a kind of obsession as I tried to trace this thing out and how we got involved in it. It just grabbed me in a way,” Howell said.
After spending much of his life working on the subject, Howell has procured a seemingly infinite base of knowledge. He is able to cite the best authors on the subject, the work they did and the influence they had on him.
“Rick Atkinson, who has written a trilogy on the American army in Europe, Cornelius Ryan and A Bridge Too Far, he’s a guy who really grabbed me. There’s a guy named John Toland who writes on the Pacific War and does kind of the same thing that Ryan does,” Howell said.
In accordance with this passion, Howell’s World War Two and the Holocaust course is by far his favorite course to teach. In fact, he counts it has the best he has ever taught.
“That course is constantly developing. It has changed every year. I keep finding more angles and peeling more layers off the onion so to speak. That’s part of the reason you keep going. It just keeps going over and over,” Howell said.
Even though Howell is enamored with history, the courses he teaches and the work he does, many of his fondest memories are centered around his students.
“The students at Jewell are by the far best students I’ve ever worked with. The level of ability is well beyond any that I’ve ever worked with before. They keep you alive,” Howell said.
Retirement, however, is not far from Howell’s mind. Howell’s plans are currently in flux but that is the way he wants it.
“One of my daughters is getting married in September and that kind of controls the immediate thing. But my wife and I have some things we want to see. We have some friends in places that we’d like to see. The immediate thing is settle down and see some people,” Howell said.
Beyond those intentions, he and his wife have greater visions for retirement. Howell and his wife hope to visit Scotland and to see the Faroe Islands.
As Howell moves on to the next stage of his life, history will continue to guide him as it has done for 52 years.
Photos by Mykala Crews.