SHAF Profile: John W. Howard

(from the July 2009 SHAF Newsletter)

As superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield and National Cemetery, John Howard is responsible for managing 3,288 acres of the National Park Service’s resources; he also offers direction to fifty-four full-time employees and sixty-four part-time while managing a $3.4 million budget each year. It is a far cry from one of his first jobs in high school, which consisted of playing the banjo as well as scooping coal from one pile and feeding it down a chute for others to put into fifty-pound bags for the Blue Coal Company of northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, where John was born in the town of Carbondale.

Eventually it was as a college student that he took a seasonal job with the National Park Service at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Finding that he took great enjoyment from his work for the NPS, John decided “to follow this road as his career.”

Growing up in Carbondale with one brother and three sisters in a close-knit family, John Howard’s hero was his dad, who remains the individual he most admires to this day. Upon completing high school, John attended Penn State University and Mansfield University (Pennsylvania); he holds a degree in special education with a minor in biology. Before being assigned to Antietam fourteen years ago, he worked in nine NPS areas in four different regions of the country, with his assignments focusing on the fields of Natural Resource Management and Visitor & Resource Protection. John also has worked in the National Capital Regional Office as Regional Natural Resource Management Specialist. In total, he has been with the National Park Service for thirty-four years.

John lives in Emmitsburg, Maryland with his wife, Joan, who also works for the NPS–at Gettysburg National Military Park. Their son, Brian, a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, is an ensign on active duty in Port Angeles, Washington.

When this writer asked Supt. Howard what Civil War battlefields mean to him and to the American people, his eloquent response defied paraphrasing or summarizing, so he will speak for himself:

“This morning I am sitting in my office involved in the daily bureaucratic paperwork and e-mail that make up a good part of my activities. Each time I finish something, from signing payroll to approving a project to go forward, I look up and out my window and I see the headstones in the National Cemetery.  And it provides me a very quiet reminder of the fact that every thing I do, I am working for them. I am working so that these men and this place will never be forgotten.”

“In this fast-paced world of Blackberries, Twitter and blogs I am looking at sacrifice, real sacrifice. It reminds me that this place is real; it is not some virtual simulation or photo on a website. It reminds me that this place is unique to the point that it can never be ‘recreated’ even by the most advanced technology, because that technology will never be able to instill into its bytes and chips the pure sacrifice that took place here.”

“I am not a historian, and will never claim to be one. I am just a person who has the best job in the world. I have been entrusted by the people of the United States to care for a piece of their history. This is the one place in the universe where you can see and hopefully feel what these men felt–a place where you can step away from our modern world and learn about Sharpsburg. Yesterday I accompanied a group of World War II veterans from the Yankee Division that was with Patton in the Battle of the Bulge. Here was a group of men who fought through that winter of 1944 in terrible conditions. When we were through with the tour one of them, a Purple Heart recipient, came up to me and said, ‘Man, I thought we had it tough.’ He understood. This is my goal: to help our visitors understand, one at a time if necessary. If we can make them understand we can continue to preserve and protect.”

“So why are the Antietams, Shilohs, and Monocacy important? My answer is that they are a unique part of our history, a history that shows that the fabric of this nation can be ripped and torn, and then through the blood of human beings be repaired–hopefully to be a better nation. But we cannot forget–never forget.”

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