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Joe Howard '75


Dear Class of 1975,

It is with great angst that I, and we, have already conceded to COVID-19 and have had to postpone our in-person class reunion last year. It finds me in a difficult place in my life and in the world.

When I received the second note from Joe Hooper, I thought long and hard whether I should chime in with my jaded view on the current events both personally and collectively. It ate at me for a while and then my angst turned to the realization that sharing may be cathartic and maybe even helpful to others … or not. Eventually, it made me decide to share my thoughts.

I call my current state of mind ‘Sand and Water.’

The Sands of Time are changing for many of us; glass half full shifting to glass half empty. We have to concede that we are now on the downside of Life when it seemed so far off just a few years ago. We experience the loss of our parents, our parents’ friends, our heroes, our family, our friends, etc., etc., etc. Time coldly marches on.

No longer with my hero around, I sorely miss my dad and I dream of how fascinating it would be to talk with him now about all that’s going on locally and in and around the world. It turns out upon second thought, that it’s probably good that he’s not around to see the love of his life struggle and suffer with dementia. Life and time is sometimes not fair.

It’s funny but the one thing that keeps me hopeful is my family and close friends but my rock and my inspiration is my wife, Yvonne. A blessing I am grateful for but also, sometimes, wonder why God blessed me so.

As time marches on, one then naturally becomes more introspective. Personally, I have overcome, so far, prostate cancer (2018) and a stress heart attack (2019) and various maladies that seem to increase with time. Growing old mentally is a great thing; physically, it sucks! Now, and for the first time in life, I’m tentative. Should I … or should I not?

Sometimes it seems that those grains of sands seem to be flowing faster.

As far as business, we have been declining since the ascension of our “stable genius” and my senior staff and I did not receive pay since late 2016 and/or early 2017 in an attempt to hold on in the ever-changing and fragile world of international business. Thank God, just recently, things changed ironically because of COVID because the need for PPE and such manufactured goods were in such high demand; I’m now busy.

Before the fall of last year, I was saddened by the plight of my city, the police violence, the upcoming election, the violence, the division amongst us, the violence, the effect of the virus, the personal loss, the violence … etc. etc., etc.

At that time, my job had changed from pursuing business leads and contacts to being reduced to filling out forms and paperwork for employees trying to hang on during this pandemic. One day, as I travelled highway 83 North to Harrisburg, my normal NPR station was informing me as usual when they started to talk about the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery; the young man shot while jogging in his neighborhood. The constant noise was overwhelming and debilitating.

I must share a story with you about an employee in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her name is Fran. A 70-something, quality control supervisor who has worked at the factory far longer than my 28-year association. Barely 5’ 0” tall, uneducated formally, talented, loud, efficient, opinionated and dedicated, she is part of the backbone that I rely on. I travelled to Harrisburg to check on and help my employees and sign off on paperwork hoping to speed up money for those eligible for stimulus checks. She lives up the street from the office, her back porch gives her a view of our front entrance. Soon after I pulled up, she walked through the front door with her toothless smile and radiant energy ready to give a big hug, virus protocols be damned. I said hi to those unpaid staff members that showed up, signed a few forms, and collected the bills piled up on my desk, chatted with the General Manager briefly and emotionally prepared myself to visit a client that refused shipments because they arrived from China. On my way out at the end of the block, I passed a fired African American employee who stands on the corner and stares at me when I visit because he’s still mad from being terminated for harassing the Asian employees for bringing the virus to the U.S.

Before I can pull off into traffic, Fran runs to the car to offer and show me the masks she’s making for the needy that she gives away to people who can’t afford to buy them. In the back of my mind I can’t help but remember that she and her wheelchair-bound husband barely have two pennies to rub together. I try to convince her to sell them for a couple of dollars at least as I force her to take the 40 bucks in my pocket for the four she gave me. I call and tell the G.M. to give her whatever cloth is available for her to make more masks. She hugs me again while commenting on the silliness of wearing masks and reminding me that we live in America. We both purposely avoid talking politics because we know where each other stands.

I spent about an hour and 25 minutes with my idiot client trying to convince him that the containers with his inventory were not contaminated and had arrived at the end of November and had cleared customs, etc., in late December and have been available since. Accumulating storage charges were the basis of our argument. Ignorance and intolerance are the real problems.

On my way back through downtown Harrisburg to I-83, I gaze over from the eastbound bridge I’m crossing and I see an enormous line of cars lined up for miles and, for some reason, I turned to investigate. It turns out, a group of volunteers were giving out free food to people who were suffering from economic hardship because of the pandemic. The line went on for blocks and my heart sank as the reality of the need set in. As I began to make the turn for home, I saw something that caught my eye. It was a couple pulling a rickety cart standing in line amongst people in the cars. As I rode closer, I noticed it was Fran hand in hand with her husband sitting in his wheelchair. I pulled over to say something and offer my assistance when she and her husband saw me and turned their backs and ducked their heads in embarrassment.

I froze … and then I turned around and returned to my car. I started on my way home and, as luck would have it, it began to rain. As I got on the road past the factory on my way to return to my stable and safe place back home, the watery tears started streaming down my cheeks as the rain poured. Sometimes, I thought, life just isn’t fair as I passed the pissed employee still standing on the corner, staring, in the pouring rain.

I arrived home with my constitution back intact and my mom, who hadn’t seen me that morning looked at me strangely and said respectfully, “Good morning,” painfully not sure of who I was. As I departed I could hear the caregiver reminding her that I was her son. The tears started again.

I returned to my office in the basement where CNN and MSNBC, which keep me company while in the office, kept pounding my brain about another Black man killed by either police or racist whites. Also the constant reminder of the increasing murder rate in the Black community and it all makes you want to scream. Somehow my mind takes me back to my first days at Gilman in the fall of 1968 [to take some entrance exams] going through checkpoints around the city divided by neighborhoods, the smell of smoke not too far in the distance and returning to the safe “bubble” called Gilman. Who thought when we graduated in 1975 that we would be dealing with the same issues we thought we had solved or progressed on.

Now back to the present, when all the noise seemed to take over and I’m feeling sorry for myself, my mother comes downstairs to my office with that always loving and reassuring look in her eyes and with outstretched arms she says, “Give me a hug, I love you”. The tears once again streamed down my face and all of the sudden life went back to normal, if just for a moment.

When I stop to think about my, our, the collective situation, I have to stop feeling sorry for myself, ourselves because, in reality, we are blessed in so many ways. Hopefully there is a lesson somewhere that makes us think of the needs of others.

My only thought that comes to mind is to count your blessings before the sands of time are washed away.

I hope this was helpful in some way.

I love you guys and wish the best for all of you. Stay safe and let’s keep in touch and keep each other up.


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