East Carolina University Chancellor Emeritus John Howell, who served the university for three decades as a professor and administrator, died Jan. 3.
His colleagues remember him for his knowledge, leadership and service to the university.
ECU Chancellor Emeritus John Howell
“His influence began long before he was chancellor,” said Henry Ferrell, a former history professor and university historian at ECU. Howell was instrumental in creating the faculty senate and was one of the primary researchers who helped compile information that led to the founding of the Brody School of Medicine.
Howell served in the U.S. Army Air Corps for three years during World War II, after which he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in political science from the University of Alabama. He taught at Randolph Macon Women’s College before attending Duke University, where he earned a doctorate in political science.
He was hired at ECU in 1957 after teaching at Memphis State University and became a full professor in 1961. He helped found ECU’s Department of Political Science, of which he was the first chair. Howell later served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, dean of the graduate school, and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
“He had a strong ability to organize and structure things,” said Ferrell. “He was one of this university’s outstanding administrators. He was composed, he was humorous, and he knew what higher education was about.”
Retired political science professor Tinsley Yarbrough credits Howell for bringing him to ECU. Like Howell, Yarbrough is from Alabama. In the early years of the political science department, Howell reached out to the University of Alabama in search of new faculty members.
“My professor told me that anything John Howell was connected with would be very sound,” Yarbrough said. “After visiting Greenville and meeting John and (his wife) Gladys, I agreed with that assessment, and also that they were wonderful people.”
By the time Yarbrough arrived on campus, Howell had become a dean. “He was one of the best administrators that I have worked with,” he said. “He knew how to treat people, and he had an easy way about him that attracted people to him. He could get a lot done without a lot of fuss.
“He was an excellent teacher as well.”
Howell was one of a small group of administrators entrusted by then-Chancellor Leo Jenkins to run the school while he pushed for the creation of the medical school and attended to other legislative matters, Yarbrough added.
“Leo would say that he depended on them, and they did a great job,” he said. “John had been here for a few years by the time of that big push, and he stepped up to fill that role.”
In 1982, Howell was tapped as interim chancellor following the tenure of Dr. Thomas Brewer.
“He was considered a good choice because he knew the campus, got along well with faculty, and had the strong support of Bill Friday, president of the state university system,” said John Tucker, professor of history and university historian. “He is known for his steady, stabilizing influence on campus and in relation to the community.”
Howell’s mission was not to create change, Tucker added, but to guide to maturity the advances begun during the tenure of Jenkins, especially the medical school. He served as chancellor until he retired in 1987. In 1991, the Howell Science Complex was named in honor of John and Gladys Howell. Gladys is a retired member of the university’s sociology faculty.
“Chancellor Howell served ECU with distinction,” said Chancellor Steve Ballard. “Nancy and I will always remember the grace and warmth with which he and Gladys welcomed us to the Greenville community.”
Chancellor Emeritus Richard Eakin, who succeeded Howell, added that his service as faculty member, vice chancellor and chancellor advanced ECU’s academic stature. “Dr. Howell’s leadership was a key factor in ECU’s development of programs and services that positively impacted eastern North Carolina,” he said.
John and Gladys Howell raised two sons in Greenville, both of whom now live in the Triangle area. For the last few years, Howell, who would have turned 94 this month, had been a resident of Golden LivingCenter.
Yarbrough added, “He will be sorely missed by all his friends and family.”