Whether he was working with students, longtime residents or University faculty, Howes had a way of bringing people together and putting them at ease.
“In my point of view, John was the model public leader because of who he was and how he acted and how people reacted to him,” said David Godschalk, professor emeritus in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC.
Howes died Sunday at age 78. He was a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council for 12 years from 1975 to 1987 and became mayor for two terms, beginning in 1987.
Godschalk said he first met Howes when Howes came to the University to become director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies in 1970. He held this position for 23 years.
“Some of my strongest memories are working together in town-gown affairs,” he said. “John was always the go-to guy in those things. He was a leader who everybody liked and everybody trusted.”
Kirk Ross, a longtime local journalist, met Howes while working for the Chapel Hill News. Ross also took classes from Howes at the University, including “Introduction to City and Regional Planning.”
Ross said Howes discussed housing, density and transportation issues Chapel Hill was facing at the time in his courses.
“It really helped my appreciation for the town and what its challenges are,” he said.
In 1992, Howes became the North Carolina Secretary of the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources, a position he held for five years. Howes also served as interim director of the N.C. Botanical Garden for about four months in 2015.
Jackie Overton, former chairwoman of the University’s Employee Forum, said she got to know Howes while she was part of the forum and Howes was involved in various committees on campus.
“He was the type who would sit in a meeting and listen — he was not one to shout out — but at the end of a maybe 30- or 40-minute conversation, he would succinctly bring the point home,” she said. “I would just look at him like, ‘How did you do that?’”
She said one of her most distinctive memories of Howes is when he celebrated his 45 years at the University.
“To him, he said it felt that he had just started yesterday.” she said.
“I think he said once, ‘I almost feel guilty sometimes getting paid for what I love.’”
Overton said Howes could build consensus on controversial issues.
“He’d listen to all sides,” she said. “The pros, the cons, the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Howes had a special ability to produce compromises on problems that created tension between the University and the town, Ross said.
“He understood the relationship of the University and the town at the historical level,” he said.
“Jonathan could walk in both worlds and was able to bring a wisdom to the issue that somebody else couldn’t have because his heart was in both.”