“I was always amazed at how he knew so many kids names and he knew so much about them,” English teacher Peter Shield said, while looking in front of himself as if trying to picture Stillwater’s former Assistant Principal Bill Howlett.
Howlett was the kind of administrator who was infamously known to dote on personal relationships, remembering the personal details of students, could never stay in his office for a minute and filled the room with his big personality. Diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer in 2014, the former Assistant Principal passed on Jan. 1 at St. Therese hospice at St. Odilia in Shoreview.
Shelly Enhelder, a lifetime friend of Howlett and Pony Center secretary said, “His main thing with kids, even kids who were in our office a lot- is that he always wanted to make a connection, not just discipline them. His main goal was to make a connection with that kid and figure out what was actually going on.”
“Bill had a real soft spot for the underdog kid.” -Peter Schield
Some may say “Bill had a real soft spot for the underdog kid” according to Schield, and that he truly took it upon himself to take these students under his wing, supporting the students in any way he possibly could.
“Sometimes it drove me nuts. I told him [Howlett] that those naughty kids needed discipline, but he would say something like, ‘Shelly, he doesn’t have a dad,’ or something along those lines,” Enhelder explained with a tinge of reminiscence.
Troublesome student or not, Howlett had no issue with lingering among the halls- meeting each student.
“I was always amazed,” said Shield, “he was tuned into things that he knew would impact a kid.”
Family is key
Attending St. Cloud State may have been just an education to Howlett, but it was where he met his future wife, Donna Janovsky.
“We met at St. Cloud State University, standing in line waiting to pay for our books in the fall- and standing in line was a 2 hour long process, so you naturally got to know the people standing in line with you,” Donna said.
“He was always coaching all the boys sports teams ever since they began playing sports in 1st grade. He would always coach their soccer and basketball team and then he helped out with their football team.” -Donna Howlett
Coming out of a relationship and entering an internship, Donna did not have much interest other than talking to Howlett in line, however the following spring, she gave in to his persistence, leading to a long distance relationship throughout the summer that ended in an engagement five months later.
Now Donna Howlett, she can give a little chuckle to the love he had at first sight, and the love she now has.
Together they have two sons, William the IV Howlett, a freshman in the ROTC program at North Dakota State University, and Benjamin Howlett, an 8th grader at Chippewa Middle School.
Having two sons, it was hard for Howlett to resist his urge to get involved with their sports, and he soon became the most involved, loving father to his family.
Donna recalled, “He was always coaching all the boys sports teams ever since they began playing sports in 1st grade. He would always coach their soccer and basketball team and then he helped out with their football team.”
The transition with Howlett’s illness has been especially tough for their younger son, Donna Howlett said, however Howlett, she believes, is with them in spirit.
A man of faith and community
Growing up in Shoreview and Circle Pines, Howlett attended Centerville Middle School and graduated from Centennial High School in 1984. Earning a Bachelor’s in education from St. Cloud State University in 1989 and later receiving his master’s in education and his principal’s licensure from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, Howlett leaves a lasting effect on his community. Teaching at Benilde St. Margaret’s and Centennial High School, being the Dean of Spring Lake Park, and Assistant Principal at Stillwater, the hearts Howlett has touched is unimaginable.
Graduating from the same high school, Enhelder said, “Even though we lived our separate lives, it seemed like we always ran into each other, it was just weird how our paths kept crossing. We then both got a job at a gas station, at the Amoco in Rosedale.”
A man of faith, Howlett and his family have been attending Eagle Brook Church in Lino Lakes for over 10 years, where many community members have became familiar with Howlett, some men of whom came together, creating a study group and growing off of each other.
Darby Whitehill, a math teacher and longtime friend of Howlett explained,”Bill and I [along with about 12 other men] made a decision years back to do life together, and what that meant was to hang out with each other and try to learn and grow from each other. Study things, and try to become better all the time- becoming a better principal or teacher, trying to be better husbands to our wives, trying to be a better dad to our kids, trying to be a better employee for Stillwater schools.”
“You know, Bill was a big guy- physically he was a big guy- and his heart was big, his personality was big, he filled the room when he came in- he had stories, he loved to laugh- his presence is definitely felt.” -Peter Schield
Just a group of regular guys with all different career and professional paths, the group met through their common church and shared their journeys as fathers and husbands together. Meeting as a group at Caribou Coffee in the morning and spending an hour or so together drinking coffee, the men enjoyed reading books, watching videos, and learning off of each other- usually along the lines of parenting, being a husband, being an employee, bettering their finances or faith.
Donna believed, “It helped his faith grow, in general his faith intensified.”
Schield, also a member, explained the best part of being in the group, “It was honestly about the commodity of the group- the guys getting together and sharing life, talking about what is working and what is not working. Supporting each other and learning from each other.”
When a group of does that for every week for nearly a decade, they get pretty close- yet the men of faith do not feel a complete void- Howlett’s presence is still with them.
“You know, Bill was a big guy- physically he was a big guy- and his heart was big, his personality was big, he filled the room when he came in- he had stories, he loved to laugh- his presence is definitely felt,” Shield said.
Whitehill continued, “Something he and I shared was our faith life, believing in an afterlife- so I am looking forward to another time where I can see him again.”
“Something he and I shared was our faith life, believing in an afterlife- so I am looking forward to another time where I can see him again.” -Darby Whitehill
The typical Minnesotan outdoorsman, Howlett not only enjoyed his faith, family and friends, but also loved hunting, being out fishing and anything to do with nature.
Schield said, “He had camouflage everything,” and Whitehill added, “Actually we did have a lot of fishing outings together, where we would talk about hunting and our kids.”
The common theme among relationships shared was what Whitehill explained, “You’re going to find your friends by either being in close proximity to them- they might be your neighborhood friends. Or you’re going to have a common value or belief that draws you together- and it was more the common value or belief than the proximity.”
A diagnoses is no match for a strong will
Diagnosed in 2014 with stage IV prostate cancer, the future was not only unpredictable, but certain. However, Howlett’s commitment to the students of Stillwater, and his relationships, trumped the grave terms of his illness.
Enhelder said,”That summer when he had just found out, we sat in his office and decided, you know what- we are not going to let this stop anything. Bill always said, “Nope no way, I am not going to,” and I mean, he truly was not going to let it affect his life- even the last few times he was here, he was in pain every day constantly, but he was here.”
“I don’t think we realized how much pain he was really in, especially the last few months, but it is good to know now he is pain free. He always wanted to go back, that was his goal. He loved the kids and he missed them, he loved the staff and he missed everybody.” -Donna Howlett
Donna explained, “I don’t think we realized how much pain he was really in, especially the last few months, but it is good to know now he is pain free. He always wanted to go back, that was his goal. He loved the kids and he missed them, he loved the staff and he missed everybody.”
Nevertheless, the man who grew off of relationships had a strong support system behind him, one of which was Whitehill, a former cancer survivor himself.
“He and I did spend some additional study group time talking about the cancer journey and what that entails, the ups and downs, the hopes and the heartbreaks, the progress and the setbacks- more like life and how there is progress and setbacks- it is a journey,” Whitehill explained.
Leaving school for treatment and recovery was a very difficult experience for Howlett. Much like when one breaks a leg, all they want to do is run. So when Howlett could not see his students, all he was doing was awaiting the day that he could go back.
Schield, who had paid visits to Howlett in the hospital and hospice explained,” When I would visit, he would open his eyes, and he would look at me and the first thing out of his mouth was a smile of course, but then he would say, ‘How are the kids at school, what’s going on with the kids’ and I was amazed.”
A legacy to be remembered
Howlett entered St. Therese hospice at St. Odilia in Shoreview on Nov. 21, where, as reported by The Pioneer Press, “More than 100 friends, students and colleagues met outside his room to sing Christmas carols. The group held signs that read ‘We love you, Bill’ and ‘We miss you, Mr. Howlett.”’
It is by no doubt that the community feels a void without the infamous smile and big personality of Howlett, however the impressions he has left are timeless.
One specific occurrence Donna remembers, is when three graduates of Centennial High School’s class of 2001 came to visit Howlett at St. Therese.
“The most valuable thing that I learned from Bill was that as teachers we have to know these kids and what they come to our school with everyday what the baggage they bring, because if we don’t know those things we can’t really help them to the best of our abilities-that is something I’ve tried to carry on.” –Peter Schield
“All Bill did was teach them simple note taking skills, not history, but something as simple as taking notes- and it was just the world to them. It was the little things they carried with them all throughout college, to the point where they are successful architects today,” Donna recalled.
“The most valuable thing that I learned from Bill was that as teachers we have to know these kids and what they come to our school with everyday what the baggage they bring, because if we don’t know those things we can’t really help them to the best of our abilities-that is something I’ve tried to carry on,” Shield said.
The lessons he has taught everyone who has been touched by him are something that will stick for a long time to come. The passing of Howlett is sad, yes, but his legacy will live on in the high school, in Stillwater, Centennial, Benilde St. Margaret’s, Spring Lake Park, Eagle Brook Church, his hometown, with his friends and his family.
Donna said, “He loved high school-aged kids and he always was very gifted in that he could relate to them and he could communicate to them, in a manner that he respected them and they reciprocated. He was able to communicate with them on their level, standing next to them versus talking down to them.”
“Everybody was always welcome,” Donna added.
*A celebration of Howlett’s life was held at 2 p.m. Jan. 16 at Eagle Brook Church in Lino Lakes, where his family, accompanied by The Stillwater Varsity Choir, Principal Rob Bach, Whitehill and Schield, gathered with the community.