Thursday, April 26, 2007


Last Thursday, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, an organization in which my dad invested a huge portion of his life, had a dinner in my dad’s honor. It was very nice, very thoughtful. Many of the Foundation’s trustees attended, as did much of its staff. My mother and I were the guests of honor.

The evening began with a reception and dinner. Afterwards, they had a program with several speakers, a quartet playing classical music such as my dad appreciated, and several speakers—I among them.

Being that I am not deeply familiar with my dad’s work, as my life focuses on technology, I could not speak to my dad’s scientific and academic accomplishments. Instead I thought the audience might find it interesting to hear about some of the experiences that helped shape his personality.

Here is the text of my speech, like they say in the radio and television industries, ‘as done’:


Personally and on behalf of my mother, Betty Howell, and my sister, Jennifer, who is at home in Oregon tonight, I want to thank the Leakey Foundation for this wonderful dinner honoring my father’s memory and legacy. Particularly I want to thank Sharal Camisa and the other self-described Leakey Ladies for their extraordinary efforts in arranging the dinner. Sharal worked closely with my mother and me to ensure our wishes were met. But we appreciate the efforts of each of you.

I want to also thank all of you. By your attendance and your efforts to be here, you, too, honor my father. Thank you.

My dad loved and was very proud of this organization. It was an extremely important part of his life since its very inception. My dad was there when Robert Beck gave the Foundation its first million dollar check.

There is a story about how Bob ceremoniously handed the check to Louis, who held it almost in awe for several minutes, till my dad took it gently from Louis’ hands, kindly reminding Louis that the check wasn’t in fact, actually his.

My dad would have been overwhelmed by all of this tonight and certainly would have deemed himself unworthy. He always did in such circumstances. He never let his extraordinary success go to his head...

Sam Yamasaki, my parents’ gardener of thirty–seven years, last week told my mother that “Professor Howell was my favorite customer.” When my mother asked why, he went on to say that most professors, they “see themselves as high, above everybody else. But Professor Howell wasn’t like that. He would always stop and and talk.”

My dad saw himself as being no different, no better, no more deserving of praise than anyone else. He frequently described himself as being “just plain folks.” That was a remarkable attitude in light of his many accomplishments...

Now I am far from qualified to speak of them but even the few details I know are daunting:

  • Bachelor of Arts degree in anatomy with minors in German and French from the University of Chicago. My dad graduated Phi Beta Kappa and then went on to earn his M.A. and Ph.D. from the same institution, accomplishing it all in just six years. And he still found time to frequent the many jazz joints Chicago’s south side.

  • Leader of the famed Omo expeditions. During which he pioneered the now standard multi-disciplinary approach for paleonanthropological research.

  • Need I add, professor at Berkeley, one of the world’s preeminent universities.

  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences. At the time of his election he was one of the organization’s few life scientists. While a member, he lead one of the first scientific delegations into a then just opening China.

  • Fellow of the British Royal Society, member of the national academies of science of France and several other countries.

  • Trustee and past president of the California Academy of Sciences. John McCosker, chair of the Academy’s department of Aquatic Biology recently told my mother and me that my dad was one of the two best presidents the Academy had ever had, the other being famed naturalist Starker Leopold.

  • Contributing editor to and author for Time/Life, Encyclopaedia Britanica, World Book/Childcraft, National Geographic, and many other prestigious publishers. (In my high school social studies, we had a unit on human evolution—the text was from Early Man. My teacher, Mr. Evans, must have noticed my expression because he asked quite loudly: “Is this your father, Mr. Howell?” My meek “yes” made me instantly hated as my classmates realized I had an inside advantage on the material which none of them could match.

  • And, of course, many key roles in the Leakey Foundation.

I could go on, probably for days. Last I heard, my dad’s curriculum vitae ran well more than thirty single-spaced typewritten pages.

My father was born in Kansas City, Missouri in November, 1925. Much of his childhood was spent on farms in Kansas and Nebraska. During those years, like any farm boy, my dad had to get up, often before dawn, to take care of chickens, cows and other animals, and perform many other chores. More chores awaited him when he came home from school. And though it is a specious claim used by many parents to quiet their complaining children, my dad really did have to walk two miles to school. Even through snow during winter. I don't know, though, if it was uphill both ways.

My paternal grandfather was a traveling salesman who sold newfangled electric ranges. His frequent long absences forced my father to grow up early to take care of his mother and two younger sisters. My dad also grew up quite a bit when, during the Great Depression, his family was forced into bankruptcy and the bank foreclosed on their farm. They were evicted by court order. A little later, my dad witnessed the farm and many of his family's other belongings being sold at a "sheriff's sale." That's a court–authorized auction whose proceeds are used to repay creditors. Throughout much of my dad's childhood, the hard times outnumbered the easy ones.

Happily, things did get a bit better when my dad was a teenager. His father was more successful in his career and his family was able to move to the city. There was then enough money to send him to a private preparatory high school, his parents having taken notice of my dad’s academic achievements. With no more farm chores to do, my dad at last found himself with time to indulge his own interests. He filled it, in part, puttering in the wood shop at the school, and as the pitcher for his school's baseball team. And he excelled at his prep school, graduating with honors in 1943.

After graduation, my dad foresaw a future for himself as a history teacher. He loved the Civil War and American history in general. But real war was still raging and my dad joined the Navy. This was partly out of a desire to see more of the world and also to guarantee his choice of service as he had become eligible for the draft. He shipped out of a still recovering Pearl Harbor and spent his tour of duty in the Pacific theater, serving as a signal man. He did see a bit more of the world.

Mustering out of the Navy in Portland Oregon after more than a year at sea, he briefly returned to his family in Nebraska. He spent several months working on the farm and for the Malibo Range Company that made the electric ranges his father sold, to accumulate money for college. College back then wasn't like it is now. Back then, higher education was pretty much an avocation of the well to do. There was no Sallie Mae, no college loan programs. Few scholarships existed. The best schools, such as my dad yearned to attend, were unattainable to all but the very wealthy. My dad knew he wouldn't be able to accumulate enough money to attend a really good school as he deeply desired, let alone continue on to graduate school and this frustrated him.

But then Congress passed the GI Bill. My father often spoke of the Bill with near veneration for it enabled him to realize his goal to attend a top school, the University of Chicago, and freed him of the need to do any work other than simply study. It was there that he discovered his love of anthropology. The rest, of course, is history.

In his later life, my father never forgot the farm, the chores before dawn, the long, cold snowy walks to school, his own father's necessary hard work and long absences. The image of the sheriff’s sale was burned into his memory. Conversely, he appreciated the privilege of having been able to attend his private high school, as it prepared him for the intense academic climate of Chicago. And he always knew how lucky he was that the GI Bill had come along. That without it, he might have wound up attending a third-rate college, if any at all, and teaching high school history. He simply saw himself as someone from ordinary circumstances who had been fortunate enough to have had some good opportunities. And that his taking advantage of such opportunities didn’t make him deserving of praise or honors when those opportunities could have just as easily fallen to somebody else.

And so our brief archeological excavation and a little analysis have unearthed the bases of my dad’s two most noted traits: His vaunted generosity, which was simply a desire to provide others with good opportunities; and his unfailing humility.

I would like to end by taking special notice of what I regard as the single most important of my father’s many remarkable achievements: Keeping all of his others in perspective.

Thank you.

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