Carl Howard, at 107; engineer, musician, poet, philanthropist
A structural engineer and a musician, Carl Howard led a dual life, or “classically Janused,” he once said, invoking the ancient two-faced Roman god, glancing simultaneously at what trails behind and what lies ahead.
Janus was the god of choices and Mr. Howard chose two pursuits, or perhaps they were chosen for him. He was 8 when his mother launched his music education on piano and organ, but she also insisted he attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to prepare for a more stable career.
“I was brought up to respect and obey my mother, and I did that,” he told the Globe in 1993, when he was 85. “I’m grateful now. But I wasn’t then.”
In deference to his mother, he graduated with two degrees from MIT. But when engineering work was scarce during the Great Depression, he became a church organist and studied at the New England Conservatory, receiving a degree from there as well.
Mr. Howard, who also wrote poetry that was inspired in part by his Irish ancestry, died of aspiration pneumonia Jan. 22 in Carleton-Willard Village in Bedford, where he lived the past few decades. He was 107 and previously had lived in Lexington and Arlington.
In 1993, New England Conservatory awarded him an honorary doctorate and he shared the stage with sitarist Ravi Shankar and composer Daniel Pinkham, among others. Mr. Howard was identified then as a “composer, engineer, and major contributor to the school.” He also endowed a scholarship at Bedford High School, and friends said he made significant contributions elsewhere.
His could be so generous because he invested in the stock market, one choice that ran afoul of his mother’s wishes. “She told me that I was crazy to invest and that if I wanted to gamble, I should go to Monte Carlo,” he said with a smile in the 1993 interview. His bets paid off and he assembled a portfolio of blue-chip stocks.
Katie DeBonville, the conservatory’s senior director of alumni relations and annual giving, said the school “was blessed to have Carl as a generous and distinguished member of its family for nearly eight decades; his gentle demeanor and sharp wit and humor will be missed.”
An only child, Carl Chandler Howard was born in 1907 and grew up in Somerville. His father was on the board of the Handel and Haydn Society and his mother traced her lineage to the Adams family of Colonial times. “I was raised in a three-decker in Somerville,” he told Peter F. Stevens for a Boston Irish Reporter interview in 2008. “It was Irish all around us and a mix of immigrants. I was one in the mix.”
Mr. Howard played an organ solo during Somerville High School’s 1925 graduation, and also played at churches for funerals and weddings. His talents were not limited to keyboards and not always warmly welcomed. His mother didn’t like the sound when he took up his grandfather’s cornet, and asked him to set it aside. Mr. Howard also taught himself double bass to perform with an ensemble at school.
From MIT, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1929 and a master’s in 1930, graduating “just in time for the Great Depression,” he told Boston Irish Reporter. With little work available, he became the organist at First Parish Church in Watertown. While in that job, he finished studies at New England Conservatory, receiving scholarships and awards, and graduating in 1936 with a degree in composition.
The hurricane that struck New England in 1938 and the boom after World War II created so many construction opportunities that he returned to engineering work for two Greater Boston firms, initially at Stone and Webster, and for most of his career at Cram & Ferguson, from which he retired in the mid-1970s.
Through some of his life he composed music, too, including for the Composers’ Forum-Laboratory sponsored by the Works Progress Administration.
He married Helen Lyndon, a musician who died of cancer two years later.
Donna Maria Regis, a life overseer and former trustee at New England Conservatory, met Mr. Howard when he was in his 80s. She will perform two of his compositions at his service, which will be announced. Mr. Howard left no immediate survivors. “He was a wonderful man,” she said. “He was pixieish, he was funny.”
Regis, who plays keyboards and accordion, was playing the latter at his 100th birthday celebration when a woman in the retirement community approached and said, “ ‘I’m going to get him to dance, will you please play the “Beer Barrel Polka”?’ And he skipped around the room holding her hand at 100 years old. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
At Carleton-Willard, Mr. Howard liked good coffee and brewed his own. For many years he also drank a beer each day at noon and had a glass of wine at dinner. “He said, ‘I have to be drinking a lot of liquids so I’m going to drink liquids that I like,’ ” said Susan Turner, a social worker who was his geriatric care manager. “He wasn’t excessive in anything, though. He would have one cup of coffee and one beer and one glass of wine.”
Of his musical compositions, Mr. Howard told the Globe in 1993 that his style was “modest, of small proportions.”
“One of my greatest joys is the fact that I got him to compose again,” Regis said. “I would take him manuscript paper, and the next visit it all was filled, so I gave him some more. That was his true passion.”
If composing was his passion, writing poetry ran a fairly close second. He self-published books of poems and “had notebooks and notebooks and notebooks of poetry that he wrote” all his life, Turner said.
“I do believe that for the Irish, there’s something in the blood that makes you interested in words,” he told the Boston Irish Reporter, and added that while growing up, he was fascinated by the names of towns and people in Ireland that “sounded so musical.”
Mr. Howard traveled to Ireland in 1985 and ’86, when he was in his late 70s, and “the very music of those Irish names was one of the reasons I wanted to visit the places where my family had been,” he told the Boston Irish Reporter. In Limerick, he was enchanted by a church “where there’s no message board outside to tell you the Mass and Confession times, but where all the locals know them. You get a sense of a place that’s timeless and simple.”
He characterized some of his poetry as “Irish Haiku,” with stanzas containing 20 beats, and he used a limerick rhyme scheme in other poems, such as in an untitled piece the Boston Irish Reporter reprinted:
All the questions now commonly rife
Are as keen as a well-sharpened knife
But the answers disgust
For their meanings are just
As obscure as the purpose of life.