Of the men and women who served as mayor during my time in Springfield, none tried to do so much for the city, or generated so much public feeling, as Nelson Howarth. The trying and the feeling were not unrelated, but every town needs a Howarth now and then.
I also wrote about Howarth on the occasion of his retirement from public life here.
Basically what Nelson Howarth tried to do as mayor in the 1960s was awaken Springfield to the 1940s. It was a thankless task; it is still possible to find people who hate Nelson Howarth because he introduced ten-cent parking meters downtown. Denigrated in certain circles as a radical, Howarth was in fact an old-fashioned Progressive. His dream for Springfield had been essentially laid out in the city's master plan of 1923. Today his program—better sewers and parks, honest administration, cleaned-up slums—and his slightly prudish standards of public morality would strike most people as quaint.
There is a rule in American public life that foes who disagree with a man who is mistaken must attack his facts, but if he is right they attack his character. The many who opposed Howarth's integrationist views—and they were by no means restricted to the town's cracker fringe—could not attack Howarth's policies after his re-election in 1963 without making their own bigotries unmistakable. Unable to refute the cause they tried to refute the man making it. Rumors that he beat his wife were put about—genteel Springfield's version of the shotgun blast through the window at night.
Howarth was eventually able to make light of the wife-beating smear. It probably didn't cost him many votes, much less an election; in Springfield, a candidate would be much more damaged by rumors that he read books for pleasure. There was something about him that reduced certain people to frenzies of abuse. Howarth accused one City Hall old-timer of using a coal contract for patronage, which in that case was like accusing a tree of being green; the man in reply likened Howarth to Hitler—about as accurate as comparing Mother Teresa to Madonna, if not so funny.
Perhaps the ripest of these fantasies came from the campaign of Lester Collins, who was mayor from 1959 to 1963. Collins rallied a complacent citizenry against what he called Howarth's "promises of Utopia." (Howarth had campaigned for more parks.) Collins warned, "Fear is the tool of the tyrant," a phrase he dutifully credited to ”The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” in case anyone mistook which tyrant he meant. Most bizarre of all, Collins accused Howarth of a "campaign of self-analysis accompanied by a resolve to change his personality." This strikes me as rather healthy, and I can think of any number of politicians who would profit from it.
One of the drawbacks of Springfield's officially nonpartisan commission system of government was the way that political disputes swung on personality rather than ideology or partisan affiliation. Howarth's personality was perhaps not ideal for such a setting. He had a temper and was capable of sarcasm, which offended the people who thought city business should be conducted with a wink rather than a sneer. (There is nothing Springfield loves better than a genial hypocrite.) His set-tos with the John Hunters or the Jim Dunhams of the council reminded one less of Disraeli and Gladstone than of Abbott and Costello. But I have learned that people would rather be entertained than governed, which may explain why the town elected to three terms a man who was in every important respect not representative of it.
Howarth's successors included nonentities like William C. Telford, whose wardrobe was more eloquent that he was. If it was Howarth's boast that during his tenure the city adopted a fair housing ordinance it never meant to honor, his successors could boast of landing an LPGA golf tournament. You don't need me to tell you which Springfield is prouder of.
Howarth is probably best remembered for the conversion of the Lincoln home neighborhood into a national historic site. He did it out of more than civic duty. Howarth always kept a law office in the neighborhood, and did not endear himself to the chamber of commerce types by going to Washington and telling a congressional hearing that while Lincoln had once served briefly on the Springfield city council, this had been kept quiet by his admirers to protect his reputation.
I did not know Howarth well. I knew that not everyone liked him, he often being derided as stubborn by people who don't know a principle when they see one. He could be a little vain about his probity, which is a small fault as politicians' vanities go. His honesty seemed genuine enough; he apparently did not die rich, which for a lawyer requires acts of self-abnegation that would exhaust a saint.
I have met and like his wife, Mary, whose companionship attested to his qualities more than his campaign speeches did. I remember being surprised to learn that his children liked and admired him—something so rare among my generation that at first I assumed they must be jockeying for a place in the will. Son William, who is an accomplished professor of English at Princeton, took up the life of Thoreau as one of his scholarly interests—a choice I assume was not uninfluenced by his father's example.
I have paid enough attention to politics to accept that one measures a politician by what he accomplishes but measures a man by what he tries to accomplish. In that respect Howarth was a better man than he was a politician. I just hope that wherever he is, nobody brings up that he once was a member of the Springfield city council. It would be a shame to ruin his reputation. ●
A Springfield mayor, upon his death
October 24, 1991