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Charles D. Howell, 93; excelled at managing, resolving conflicts

Mr. Howell and his wife helped start a Unitarian church in Michigan.

Mr. Howell and his wife helped start a Unitarian church in Michigan.

Born in England to American parents and educated in British boarding schools, Charles D. Howell was a few months into graduate studies at Harvard Business School when Pearl Harbor was attacked during World War II.

Leaving to join the Army, he became a lieutenant with an engineering unit building airfields and bridges in the South Pacific, where a different education awaited.

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Supervising soldiers who grew up in Appalachia, far removed from his own upbringing of refined manners, he lost his British accent and learned what people from different backgrounds could accomplish together through hard work. Such lessons, he recalled later in an oral history interview, proved invaluable during his career as a manufacturing executive and as a consultant.

Mr. Howell, who moved to Greater Boston in the mid-1970s to work as a consultant for Arthur D. Little and Bain & Co., died of complications of pneumonia Feb. 17 in Fox Hill Village in Westwood. He was 93 and previously lived in Dedham.

In his early 80s, Mr. Howell began consulting as a volunteer through the Executive Service Corps, focusing on BELL, a Boston-based organization that provides learning programs for children.

Mr. Howell also offered his management skills to First Church and Parish in Dedham, where he sang bass in the Unitarian Universalist church’s choir and filled in as organist.

“He had a lifetime of experience with organizational management and he did a lot of oversight with us and helped to streamline our process and look at how we communicate goals and ideas,” said the church’s minister, the Rev. Rali Weaver. “He had a very good way of taking lots of people’s ideas and turning them into something cohesive.”

‘He could bridge that gap, and take a very hostile situation and work out a deal that made everybody happy.’

Carla Howell, daughter of Charles D. Howell  
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Throughout his career Mr. Howell was adept at resolving differences. When a dispute appeared intractable, “he didn’t see it as right and wrong, he saw it as valid and valid,” said his daughter Katherine of La Conner, Wash.

Born in Cambridge, England, Mr. Howell was an infant when his parents moved to Concord.

His father, who had been a Royal Air Force pilot, taught Latin at the Middlesex School in Concord. His mother was the daughter of William Russell, a former Massachusetts governor.

Mr. Howell (seen in 1949) worked as a consultant for Arthur D. Little and Bain & Co.

Mr. Howell (seen in 1949) worked as a consultant for Arthur D. Little and Bain & Co.

Mr. Howell was a boy when his parents divorced. He moved back to England with his mother and enrolled in the boarding school system, where he later recalled that mistakes could bring strict reprimands.

“If you gave them any trouble at all, they’d cuff you on the head,” Mr. Howell said in an oral history interview.

He graduated from the Stowe School in England and returned to the United States to attend Harvard College, graduating in 1941.

After the war interrupted his studies, he graduated from Harvard Business School and worked at Sargent manufacturing in New Haven, crediting the experience with teaching him how a factory operates.

“In manufacturing, you can’t be a manager if you don’t thoroughly understand the product and how it’s made,” he said in the oral history.

His mother had returned to the United States and launched a ballroom dance company in Boston. While visiting Boston, Mr. Howell became enamored of the daughter of one of his mother’s colleagues. He married Carla Winsor in 1947, and they had a commuter marriage for a year until she graduated from Wellesley College.

Mr. Howell left Sargent manufacturing to work for a short time in Ohio before moving to Michigan, where the couple started a family. He worked in management at Ford Motor Co., where he became skilled at estimating the cost of making new models.

“I got to know how every part of the car was built — certainly all of the chassis parts,” he said in the oral history. “I could review whatever the designers came up with, and if the estimator was way off the mark I could generally tell by calculating material, price per pound, labor costs.”

Mr. Howell and his wife helped start a Unitarian church in Birmingham, Mich., a Detroit suburb, and he served as its first president, his family said.

From the beginning of the 1960s through the mid-1970s, Mr. Howell was a top executive at Westinghouse Air Brake Co. in Pittsburgh; that company’s Union Switch and Signal division; and at Dead River Co., a large heating oil and propane company in Maine.

Then he moved his family to Dedham when he began working with the Arthur D. Little consulting firm.

Since his days at Harvard, his family said, Mr. Howell had been fond of unions and often found himself the lone Democrat among conservative voices in upper management at companies where he worked.

At Arthur D. Little, he specialized in helping resolve disputes between management and unions at companies such as Chrysler and General Motors, his family said.

“He could bridge that gap, and take a very hostile situation and work out a deal that made everybody happy,” said his daughter Carla of Arlington, Va. “That was one of his standout skills as a manager.”

In 1982, Mr. Howell switched from Arthur D. Little to Bain & Co., where he worked until retiring in 1990, though he kept consulting part-time until the late 1990s.

His wife died in 1987, at age 59, from complications of liver cancer.

The following year he married Margaret Sturtevant, who died seven years later, also at 59, of a cerebral hemorrhage.

A lifelong piano player, Mr. Howell had expansive tastes that included the classical pieces he usually played and jazz compositions that had captured his fancy early in his career when he went with friends into New York City to visit Harlem jazz clubs.

The Howell family built a summer residence on Wings Neck in Bourne on Cape Cod, which became a gathering place for decades.

Mr. Howell helped manage benefit tennis tournaments on Cape Cod and played in tournaments himself during family vacations there and in Bermuda until he was 84. He also attended all four professional Grand Slam tournaments and had watched in person most of the top tennis players in his lifetime.

A service has been held for Mr. Howell, who in addition to his daughters leaves two sons, David of Newton and Doug of Seattle; a stepson, Tasker Smith of Natick; and eight grandchildren.

Though Mr. Howell worked to sound less British while serving in the Army, over the years “he could slip into his British accent and you’d think he was a Brit immediately,” David said.

“He always had such good manners,” David said. “He was not showy. He was a very modest fellow.”

Emma Stickgold can be reached at
estickgoldobits@gmail.com.

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