There was a tear in the fabric of our community this past December with the death of Howard Myers. Many will remember him as a realtor, others as a builder of houseboats, and most as a friend and neighbor. Howard died just a week short of his 92nd birthday in Sonoma in a house he shared with his daughter Diana. For those who didn’t know him well, I thought I would recount some of the moments of his life that his son Curt recently shared with me.
Howard was born in 1930 in Cleveland. It was early in the Depression and like so many families in the Midwest, his struggled economically. When prohibition ended in 1933, his father, already an alcoholic, became a beer and liquor salesman. When Howard was 9, his mother died; and with his father unable or unwilling to look after him, Howard was passed around from grandfather to various of his older sisters. Maturity came early by necessity. He skipped school for odd jobs, and at age 12 drove his father on his sales routes to bars and liquor stores. Eventually, Howard went into foster care, but bouncing from home to home didn’t stop. Mostly he ended up on farms on the outskirts of Cleveland for families who saw him primarily as free labor. At age 17 he quit school, took $70 that he believed he was owed, and bought a bus ticket to Los Angeles. There he found an aunt with whom he stayed while he sought work, mostly in gas stations or on farms. Because of his experience in Ohio, he knew farm work and got jobs in the Central Valley through the Bureau of Casual Labor. Such jobs required that he travel, so he bought his first car and also used it as a residence. He’d finish one job, drive to the next town, and apply at the bureau for another job. After four years of agricultural labor, he ended up in Susanville working in lumber camps and on sheep ranches.
At age 21 he found work at a cannery in San Jose. There he met Virginia. They married and a year later gave birth to their son Curt. Four years later, Diana was born. But Howard wasn’t ready to settle into a conventional life. Without a high school diploma and having to work fulltime, he studied his way to a BA in Psychology at San Jose State. That was just the beginning. He went on to earn a master’s in social work from the University of Michigan. Virginia also degreed in social work. And in 1968 the family moved back to San Francisco where Howard got a job with the city’s Department of Child Welfare, his mission to make a positive difference in the lives of children. Following his work with the city, he worked for a company that monitored the running of foster homes. There Howard was able to bring the experience of his childhood to the betterment of the foster care system.
During this time, Curt graduated from high school and started working as a carpenter before going to college. And Howard, by now frustrated with social work and intrigued by the woodwork his son was doing, decided to shift gears. In 1971 he and Virginia got divorced, he bought a home at Yellow Ferry Harbor in Sausalito, and started repairing houseboats. Three years later he was making his signature redwood bathtubs and working with his son building houseboats from the hull up. Then in 1985 he went from building houseboats to selling them.
For many years Howard was a fixture on the docks, famous for his amazing Christmas cookies, even more so for his good nature and positive attitude. Two of my favorite stories about Howard involve his interest in classical music. The first is one that his grandson Austin told me about his grandfather being late for dinner at Curt’s house. It happened more than once. While the food was getting cold, they found Howard sitting in his car in the driveway listening to the end of a symphony by Stravinsky or some other early 20th century composer. The second story is one that I witnessed numerous times at gatherings at Creig Hoyt’s home on Issaquah Dock. Howard had an amazing talent. Creig would play a few bars from a CD of some symphony (obscure to most of the other guests). Howard would close his eyes for a moment, then say, for example, “It’s definitely Eastern European.” He would pause. “Russian. Definitely Russian. It’s Shostakovich.” Creig would smile and nod, and we’d all be impressed. But then Howard would smile and continue. “Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in D Minor.” The whole room would explode in laughter and applause. And he was nearly always right.