In 1961, Nathan Howard was a 19-year-old missionary with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he attended a regional conference in Guatemala City, one of the hubs of a mission that spanned all of Central America.
Elder Marion G. Romney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke at the gathering, assisted by an interpreter who converted the visiting disciple’s English into Spanish.
“I first witnessed the gift of tongues on my mission,” Nathan wrote in his life history. “Elder Romney gave a stirring address to the congregation. I was so touched by his message, as were the hermanos and hermanas that I was slow to realize that the statements which were being translated were getting longer and longer, to the point where the translator finally sat down. All had understood every word he had spoken in English. Similarly, when I taught investigators in the first few months while learning to communicate, the Spirit filled in the translation.”
Nathan would serve a faithful mission – 30 months at the time – before returning to his native Northern California in 1964. It was there where he met his future wife, JoAnn. The day he was introduced to her, he decisively told his sister, “I think I will marry JoAnn Fitts.” He made good on his promise when they were married in the Oakland Temple on June 16, 1965. Inseparable from the first moment, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this summer.
“I think in all the years of church service, if I had to pick one or two of my favorite callings, temple service and teaching would be at the top of the list,” Nathan once said. “And serving with JoAnn in the temple and in teaching assignments would be the all-time best.”
My dad’s commitment to service extended beyond his church callings. He and my mom spent several years as a volunteer with Valley Meals on Wheels, driving a route and delivering warm food and warmer smiles to homebound residents. He always had an uncanny way of making people feel valued, like a wise appraiser who never fails to recognize a treasure, no matter how obscured.
When those on the route sometimes had trouble hearing a simple greeting, my dad would patiently lean over and offer another “hello,” aware that he and my mom would be the only visitors that most clients would see that day. My dad cared in a way that was genuine and, like a gifted point guard in basketball, seemed to make everyone around him better.
My folks moved Veradale in 1999, leaving behind the traffic and high cost-of-living in the Puget Sound area. They never looked back. My dad acclimated quickly to the Inland Northwest, finding the best rivers and lakes for fishing while tinkering on an old RV that looked like something off the set of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” He quickly adopted the Gonzaga Bulldogs as his team and followed each March Madness by fastidiously filling out his bracket.
My parents first made the transition to Washington from California in 1970 when my dad took a job with Lone Star Concrete in Seattle. A well-respected quality control engineer, my father would go on to earn national acclaim in his field, though he rarely talked about any personal accolades, preferring instead to simply work hard and provide for his family.
Nathan started his own engineering/consulting company and had a thriving profession until 1993 when a congenital heart defect derailed his career. He would require a heart transplant according to physicians at Oregon Health Science University in Portland. When consulting with doctors there, he managed to reach back for some of his signature dry wit during a somber overview of his condition.
When told that he would die without a transplant, my dad paused for effect and said, with a straight face, “Could you be more specific?”
On Sept. 13, 1993, he was fortunate to receive a new heart. For 22 years, he savored his “second chance” while acknowledging that many in the same position are not so lucky. As a longtime volunteer with LifeCenter Northwest, he would speak on the importance of organ donation to anyone who would listen.
On the day of my dad’s transplant surgery, my mom drove him to the hospital, understandably nervous and in a bit of a hurry. Once again, my dad’s unique humor surfaced as a way to put those around him at ease.
“JoAnn, slow down, it’s me who’s having the baby!” my dad said.
In the years following his operation, my dad participated in several U.S. Transplant Olympics, competing in sports like basketball, tennis and, his favorite, volleyball. Some of my most cherished memories are of the two of us playing golf, walking the freshly cut fairways at Meadowwood, Trailhead or Painted Hills on bright summer afternoons. It didn’t matter who won – although my dad usually did – it was about capturing quality time that seemed so abundant then but is actually so fleeting.
My dad was always there for my mom, my brother, Stephen, and I. His nourishing, encouraging presence motivated and sustained me at all stages of my life, from the first day of school to my college years to when I started my own career path and family. When distressing storms arose, my dad was inevitably the lighthouse that guided me back to safe ground.
My parents were remarkable examples of collaboration and commitment in marriage, caring for each other with the utmost love and attention through happy times as well as struggles. He and my mom would serve five missions together and volunteer at the Spokane Temple on the southern outskirts of Spokane Valley.
“We met Nathan on their mission to the Nauvoo Temple,” said Phyllis Ross who served with Nathan and JoAnn in the Nauvoo, Illinois Mission. “What an example he was to everyone, serving faithfully even with his health challenges. We received one of his beautiful candles which sits on my dresser to remind me of his great service and his caring of others.”
My dad radiated the joy of the gospel and the light and warmth of the Holy Ghost in his life each day. He did that by serving others, nurturing his faith, relying on the Lord, reading the scriptures and serving in the temple. In his home office, he kept a number of quotes pinned to the wall. One of them by Henry Van Dyke seemed to sum up his earthly trajectory:
“There is only one way to get ready for immortality and that is to love this life and live it as bravely and faithfully and cheerfully as we can.”
Since their move to the Spokane Valley, my parents faithfully attended the Evergreen Ward in the Spokane East Stake. Throughout his membership in the Church, my dad held a diversity of callings including temple ordinance worker, seminary teacher, Gospel Doctrine instructor, bishopric counselor, High Council member and ward music chairman, among others.
“We lost a great servant of the Lord, but the heavens gained a great servant,” said Frank Morgan of the Spokane East Stake. “He will be missed. It was a pleasure to work with him through the years in the temple.”
Others in the stake remembered Nathan as a shining example of gospel joy.
“He makes us all want to be better people and always made us feel like he was so happy to see us,” said Trudy Reese. “The world is so much better because he was here. We love these dear people so much. We’d better get to work showing what we learned from their examples.”
Mark Spear recalled working with Nathan in the Spokane Temple.
“It was the highlight of my week when I served in the temple with Nathan,” Mark said. “I loved serving beside him, I could always feel his sweet spirit and was strengthened by my association with him. His contagious smile spread around the temple and brightened everyone’s day and made it a joy to serve with one of God’s special sons.”
My parents took over as publishers of the Latter-day Sentinel in the fall of 2010 when the publication’s founder, Dennis West, moved with his family to Utah. My dad saw parallels to a weekly letter of encouragement called the “Sermoncito” his father, Ed Howard, sent out to family and friends for nearly 40 years.
“My dad passed away without me thanking him properly for all he did to teach and enlighten me with his Sermoncitos,” my dad wrote in his life history. “His goal never deviated – never to bring praise to himself, only to be a sentinel, a guardian of truth, one who stands for righteousness. May we stand as a team, committed to faithfully carrying the eternal flame of truth.”
In addition to overseeing the marketing and advertising side of the Sentinel, Nathan took pictures and wrote several articles for the paper, including two – “Wall of Heroes” and “Change of Heart” that chronicled his experience of a heart transplant.
For the past three years, my dad battled lymphoma. Once again, he saw the experience as a learning opportunity, a way to mold his character with faith as the catalyst. Throughout his treatment, he still made and gave away his trademark beeswax candles and healthy fruit smoothies. When strong enough, he even made his way to the Valley YMCA to play volleyball.
One of my dad’s favorite scriptures is found in 2 Timothy, 1:7 and seems to sum up the optimism and faith he wielded throughout his life:
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.”
One of his Veradale neighbors, Dick Canfield, may have put it best when he said, “I have used a line about Nathan now for some years – ‘When you are around Nathan Howard he makes you feel like a better person – never a complaint, always a smile or one of his ‘Nathanisms.’”
I once asked my dad why he always took the high road in responding to his many challenges. His answer was simple:
“I don’t want to complain because I don’t want to be ungrateful for all I’ve been blessed with,” he said. “Also, I think about others that are worse off than me. If I’m bitter, I’m not making a positive difference.”
On Aug. 30, the day my dad passed away, Spokane Valley and the surrounding region received the first rainfall we had seen in well over a month. The much-needed precipitation left the air and landscape invigoratingly renewed. I later thought the effect closely resembled the impact my dad had on people. We all felt rejuvenated in his wake.
The last words my dad spoke to my brother and myself – through a severe cough and fading voice – will always stick with me: “I’m proud of your accomplishments.”
Growing up, my heroes were always famous athletes, musicians or writers – but as I’ve grown older, that perspective has shifted. I know now that my real hero, for many reasons, is my father. Reflecting back, I couldn’t be prouder of him. Thank you, dad. I love and miss you.