by John Quetzalcoatl Murray
Montana lost one of its great practitioners of community journalism last month.
George Howell, the long-time editor and publisher of the Mineral Independent, passed away in Sandpoint, Idaho, on Aug. 31, 2006, from long-term complications of stroke damage. He was 86 years old.
George joined his brother James in operating the Mineral Independent as a community newspaper in 1949. He was editor until 1985.
Mineral County Attorney M. Shaun Donovan said most of the papers that George put out were four pages, with the largest maybe six pages, but that he had more real news stories in that small issue than today’s vastly larger version.
“George really got to the heart of things,” Shaun said. “He was part of the community. George lived here, shopped here, went to church here, had friends here, helped raise his nieces here, and so he was plugged in in a way that an assigned beat writer just really couldn’t be. And that together with his very incisive perspective on things gave him credibility and insights into what was going on.”
“I said this to his niece after the funeral: Certain people die in the community and you think, How are we ever going to replace somebody like that. With George, you don’t even think that. You think, ‘We’re never going to replace him.’ He is one of a kind.”
George was born Jan. 1, 1920 in Lambert, Montana, the son of George McCoy Howell and Florence Beeman Howell. He was raised and attended school in Lambert, graduating from Lambert High School in 1939. He attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, graduating in 1943 with a Bachelor Degree of Arts.
George joined the Army Air Corps in 1943 and served during World War II as a B-24 airplane pilot and bomber squadron commander. He received recognition for distinguished service and was honorably discharged in June 1945. After the war, he attended post-graduate school for two years at the University of Iowa in Ames, studying physics.
He taught school as a substitute for one semester in Outlook, and then in 1949 joined his brother James in Superior. George was a charter member of Trinity Lutheran Church in Superior. He was active in the local Lions Club and VFW.
In 1996, George suffered a stroke while driving. The injuries from that and the resulting car accident caused him to require skilled nursing care from then until the time of his death.
After George left the newspaper business, the Mineral Independent went through a series of owners before being acquired by an out-of-state corporation, which moved its offices to Sanders County. The newspaper is now produced as a shared edition with the Clark Fork Valley Press in Plains. The inside and editorial pages of both newspapers are the same, with a different front page and different sports page. Like other corporate-owned papers, the Plains paper now charges fees for most community news.
It was a much different paper when George was editor.
“George went to every meeting—the town council meetings, the commissioner meetings, all the various boards,” Shaun said. “He always knew had his eye out and really fulfilled that function of newspapers to act as a watchdog or at least the observer, to notice what’s going on and take note of it. If there was anything of significance going on in the community, it would come up on his radar screen and he would write about it. I think that was a good thing for a community to have somebody like that,” he said.
Although most people today think that the ultimate newspaperman should be objective, George had an opinion about absolutely everything, Shaun recalled, and you seldom read one of George’s stories without knowing what he thought.
“He would make a comment that was just priceless. In the early 80s, the Superior girls basketball team had a good season,” Shaun recalled. George wrote: “The success of the Superior girls basketball team was on everybody’s lips this week, with most locals saying, ‘Them girls done perty good.’
“I swear to you that before that story came out and afterwards I heard that identical comment in those exact words from a dozen people. The fact that George would put that in the paper was not just a comment on the pride everybody had in the team, but it also showed Mineral County’s unsophisticated, straightforward way of looking at things.”
Shaun also recalled that as one of the founding members of the Superior Lions Club, George continued attending meetings into the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he was the oldest person in the room by about 20 years. “I can remember when The Simpsons first came on the air, it was fairly new, and one of the members was going on and on, and George said, ‘Oh, don’t have a cow.’
“Quoting Bart Simpson before most of the country even knew about Bart Simpson was just the last thing you’d expect from a 70-year-old guy,” he recalled.
Memorial services were held Sept. 7 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Superior. At his request, a memorial service and interment will also be held on Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Lambert Community Cemetery in Lambert, Montana.