An Appreciation of Glenn R. Howze, 1937–2010

By Cat Warren

Glenn R. Howze and his wife, Elsa Liner, were singing softly, recreating Huddie William Ledbetter’s version of “Goodnight, Irene.” Glenn was already losing his breath, but the oxygen tank that a hospice worker brought in stood nearby, unused. Glenn’s ubiquitous can of Coke with lime sat warm and mostly full.

The conversation had meandered, as was usual with Glenn, from corrupt bankers to his fellow Texan Jim Hightower’s book— Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times— on land-grant universities selling out to big agriculture interests. We touched on the deplorable state of funding for public higher education and talked about Martin Luther King Jr. and the mixture of civil rights leaders who had surrounded him. We admired the Kinky Friedman doll his twin sister had given him and realized that the Kinkster wasn’t an entirely great writer. Not like Molly Ivins. Or Cormac McCarthy.

Of course, we always returned to the AAUP. Glenn had been a devoted member since he joined as a graduate student in the 1960s. He held many positions, from chapter president and state conference president to Assembly of State Conferences secretary and Council member; he also served on the AAUP’s Committee on Government Relations and chaired the Committee on Membership. Glenn epitomized the values of our sometimes quixotic organization. And he worked. Hard, most often behind the scenes, with dashes of peppery, acerbic humor. On computer programs, knocking on doors, and finding and encouraging new leaders. But that day, we had landed on a small island in the middle of one of our last talks, where we tarried, wondering how to find a copy of Sometimes a Great Notion, the movie based on Ken Kesey’s brilliant 1964 novel about a stubborn timber family on the Umpqua River in Oregon. Glenn had not only read the book and seen the movie but was deeply familiar with the lyrics that inspired Kesey. Forget the Weavers’s prettified version of “Goodnight, Irene.” This was volatile hell-raiser Lead Belly’s rich and grimly beautiful Great Depression version.

Elsa’s and Glenn’s voices stumbled only slightly as they finished singing: “Sometimes I live in the country, sometimes I live in town. Sometimes I take a great notion, to jump in the river and drown.”

Glenn died May 24 at his and Elsa’s home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at the age of seventytwo. Elsa and his two children, John and Kelly, were there. He was buried May 29 in his small hometown of Monahans, at the corner of the reverse L in West Texas.

As Glenn said matter-of-factly, he wasn’t meant to win this one. And he’d had a good life. The bout of esophageal cancer a decade earlier was supposed to have finished him off and didn’t. He had then gone ahead, at Elsa’s quiet insistence, to spend a Fulbright year in South Africa in 2001, just after they were married. They chose the splendidly isolated University of Fort Hare, the only university in all of southern Africa that black Africans could attend before the end of apartheid in 1991 and the source of all educated black African leaders, both progressive and regressive, including Mugabe, Mandela, Biko, and Tutu. Glenn said it was the most wonderful year he’d spent in Africa. That was saying something, since he had worked on numerous rural development assignments in nine African countries.

Devotion to civil rights had come early to him. Glenn told me one day about how he and a couple of fellow high school students in 1954 went to a school board meeting and slapped a copy of Brown v. Board of Education in front of the board members, insisting that the law of the land required that the district desegregate immediately. The school board did, only later realizing that few surrounding districts had paid any attention to the Supreme Court.

Such a move wasn’t unusual. As one staff member wrote him, “The heroes in my house were those who lived lives and did works that advanced social and economic justice. You are in my pantheon, too, pal.”

Glenn spent his academic career at three southern universities, Tuskegee, North Carolina A&T, and Auburn, devoting his academic career to the problems of poverty and race and to developing viable systems of rural agriculture.

He was as tough and dry as the West Texas town he was born in, but sentiment, faith, and humor also drove him. At his own invitation, his many friends and colleagues at the AAUP called him “Bubba.”

The original derivation of that term—long before it was trivialized as meaning a southern redneck— was a deeply affectionate term for older brother or friend.