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William S. Howard

WILLIAM S. ”BABE” HOWARD, 82, President and General Manager of Millington Telephone Company passed away July 11, 2008 at Methodist North Hospital.

Visitation will be Sunday, July 13, 2008 4 pm-8 pm at The Millington Civic Center. Services will be 11 am Monday, July 14, 2008 at First Baptist Church in Millington. Interment at Northridge - Woodhaven Cemetery.

Mr. Howard was preceded in death by his wife Ann Anderson Howard, a daughter, Carol Keith Howard and a brother, Cheely Howard. He is survived by three daughters, Charlotte Barry of Millington, TN, Holly Starnes of Munford, TN, Laura L. Rosas of Germantown, TN, and one son, Stuart Howard of Shelby Forest, TN. Parents were the late Bessie and Billy Howard. He is also survived by two sisters, B’Lou Carter of Millington, TN and Billie Louise Moten of Memphis, six grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the charity of the donor’s choice.

Munford Funeral Home Millington Chapel 901-873-0123

Published in The Commercial Appeal on 7/13/2008

FRIDAY, JULY 11, 2008

W.S. "Babe" Howard, the colorful telephone man whose civic life reverberated such a long distance, died Friday after an illness. He was 82, having led his family-owned Millington Telephone Company since his father died in 1953. "His passing is going to be the end of an era in Millington history," Mayor Terry Jones said. "He's been a cornerstone in our community for many years."

Although Mr. Howard was folksy and drawled like the molasses he made, he devoured books and fed his own curiosity in ways that benefited everyone from nature enthusiasts to baseball players to business owners. He loved fainting goats, so he founded an annual festival called International Goat Days. He revered the past, so he restored some of Millington's oldest buildings, sold sorghum molasses he made the old-fashioned way and opened a restaurant named Old Timers. He liked what baseball could could do for the youth playing it, so he built a stadium good enough for the USA Olympic team. He took seriously the spirit of Santa Claus, so for 50 years he presented a St. Nick who wowed local youngsters by somehow knowing the names of their teachers and toys on their wish lists. He revered nature and wildlife, so he personally risked $4 million to ensure 4,076 pristine acres went to the Wolf River Conservancy and state of Tennessee instead of loggers and developers.

He was as comfortable chairing the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency as he was taking his usual chair in the lunchroom of the telephone company on Navy Road. Everyone from congressmen to his blue-collar friends would bustle through the kitchen/lunchroom, which is probably why he preferred having his work space there. He didn't make appointments, said the phone company's plant manager, Albert Hutcheson. "Drive by--if his car is there he's probably in there."

Ginny Music, his secretary from 1960 to 1991, recalled Mr. Howard as "a people person." He could afford tailored business suits but wore khaki work clothes, brogans with white socks and wide suspenders. They were more comfortable. In fact, if Mr. Howard attended a funeral, wedding or formal meeting, he'd bring his coat and tie in his car, slip them on at the last minute at a gas station near the event, then change again on the way back, Music said.  But there was another reason he wore work clothes. "He didn't want people to think he was better than they were," Music said.

Lifelong Millington resident Dennis Wages said Howard "judged not by the cut of your suit, but the quality of man you are..." "He serves a population of people who are working people. And that's his friends." His appearance sometimes fooled people who make assumptions.

Music recalled accompanying Mr. Howard decades ago to Memphis to buy a new car at a Lincoln dealership. Wearing his usual working-man's clothes, Howard walked around the showroom, but no salesman ever approached. "Finally, he said, 'To hell with it, let's get out of here," Music recalled. He went to another dealership where a salesman met him at the door and made an easy sale.

Mr. Howard engaged himself fully with his community, serving 19 years as a Millington alderman, 17 years on the Shelby County school board and with many other government and civic organizations.

But not everyone adored Mr. Howard. He could be stubborn in getting his way and lose a temper that would make his lips tremble and ears turn red. He lost a re-election bid for alderman in 1984 when he tried unsuccessfully to have Millington Central High School principal Joe Morton transferred. So later that year, he resigned his school board seat on principle, saying he no longer represented the sentiments of most his constituents. "You either like Babe or you don't like him," Music said, adding that some were simply jealous.

But his acts of kindness and generosity to people who needed a hand were far too many to count or too quiet to know about, Music said. Many insisted on writing him IOUs, but he hardly ever bothered to look in the envelope that held them in her desk drawer, she said.

Mr. Howard was a national leader in the community of independent telephone companies. He turned to the founder of another independent, Century Telephone in Louisiana, to get him out of a jam in the mid-1990s. Some of Mr. Howard's relatives sued so they could sell their controlling interest in Millington Telephone to a Chicago holding company for $25 million. Not wanting to sell, Mr. Howard settled with them out of court, borrowing the $25 million from Century Telephone's Clarke Williams. Struggling to repay that loan, Mr. Howard in 1997 sold his 25 percent interest in the local, 13-county franchise of BellSouth Mobility. He didn't reveal at the time how much he received from BellSouth, but had said in 1995 that his share was worth $48 million.

But it was people, not money, that made Mr. Howard happy, friends said. Mr. Howard didn't open the popular Old Timers restaurant to turn a buck, but to create a gathering spot, Hutcheson said. "If you were ever at Old Timers when he goes in and he starts table-hopping, I'd say that would be right up there at the top," Hutcheson said. "I almost think that was the sole purpose, to draw people together and have a place to go and mix with them on a regular basis."

Mr. Howard cared for people all his adult life. As a young man who raced cars for a hobby, he often sped people to the hospital in his own vehicle. Wages recalled as a child seeing Mr. Howard climb a telephone pole on Navy Road to try to save an employee who had been electrocuted. Mr. Howard and another man administered CPR and he brought the victim down on his shoulder. "To see Mr. Howard up that pole trying to saving that young man's life...leaves an impression about the type individual he was," Wages said.

Wages was a USA Baseball volunteer when the Cuban national team came to play. He had put out up to 15 bars of soap in the locker room, but the next day all the soap was gone. "I said, 'Mr. Howard, they're taking our soap.' "He said, 'Put more out.'" Same thing happened with the toilet paper. Next day, the extra soap and toilet paper were gone again. "He realized that they could not easily get soap and toilet paper in Cuba and they were taking it home," Wages said. "He saw the problem way before I saw the problem. And nothing was ever said about it (to the Cubans)." Mr. Howard, Wages said, helped families who couldn't pay their phone bill. Supplied choir robes to churches. Put Little League teams in uniforms. Sponsored girls softball in a big way. "And there's so many we'll never know about, the people he's helped."