Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Mission Accomplished!"

With all due respect to the last time I saw that in print, I am confident as I proclaim "mission accomplished"....I overnighted Mark's nomination packet to Athens TX at 5:10 p.m. last evening, a full 50 minutes before the post office closed.  It was a full day, a day that started with a sick 4th grader staying home with me; I feared that taking care of him would keep me from finishing my overwhelming task at hand, but it did not.  Thankfully he began to feel better around noon, as evidenced by his ability to play indoor basketball with the goal on the front hallway door. 

As I travelled home from the post office, I had such a jumble of emotions inside, all welling up to the surface.  I was relieved, proud of my work, even prouder of my husband's work, tired, emotionally and physically exhausted, melancholy, and running on pure adrenaline.  I can only compare it to the feelings I experienced after Mark's services in both Texas and Kansas.  It was like I had run a marathon, and had crossed the finish line, tired and drained, but still satisfied I'd run a decent race.

My friends Mike & Carol, who had come over Sunday to help me edit my narrative, came by last evening, and we toasted to Mark....and to a body of work that should be recognized by the Athens TX committee.  I bought special Boulevard beer (Kansas City brewed, one of Mark's favs), "Double-wide IPA" (complete with a pic of a trailer on it!).  We drank.  We ate pizza.  We laughed.  We cried.  We shared Mark stories.  I do not know what I would do without my friends. 

As I was reading the narrative over the phone to my mom in Kentucky yesterday morning (she's also one of my editors, even long-distance), I thought Andrew was asleep on the couch, not feeling well.  After I ended our conversation, he came over to me.  "Mom, I woke up just before you starting reading that to Nana.  My dad was really something, wasn't he?"  "Yes son, he was!"  He then told me how proud he was that I had worked so hard to get this stuff together to honor his dad.  Andrew is proud of ME.  Wow.  That means more than I can express in this...mere words in no way can convey what that meant to me.  And after I returned home from the post office, packet mailed, both boys were jubilant.  They get it.  They know how lucky their dad was, getting paid to do a job he loved.  I can only hope that someday, our boys get the same opportunity.

Bedtime was 9:30 last night for us all.  I slept like a baby, for the first time in weeks.  This morning, I can see how much I neglected while on my quest for Mark.  There's not a clean spoon in my kitchen (and we have about a dozen).  Two days' worth of dishes are piled in the sink (the dishwasher's clean dishes sit, ready to be put away);  laundry, well, it's piled up, too.  All that stuff will be addressed, but for now, I'm going to have my second cup of coffee, prop up my feet, and savor my mission accomplished for just another 30 minutes. 

For those interested, I am posting my narrative I sent in to the committee.  Warning: it may make you cry.  And for anyone worried that I embellished any facts (you will remain nameless, and I doubt you can even sign on to the internet), I sent along a detailed listing of accomplishments & awards that back up every statement made.  He was amazing.  And he was all mine.  :)
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                Mark H. Howell, dedicated and valued employee of TPWD Inland Fisheries staff, died on July 30, 2011.  Induction of Mark into the Texas Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame would be a perfect final “kudos” to a man who worked for almost 21 years to ensure great fishing at the lakes and impoundments of his eight county district. 

                Previously employed by Maryland DNR, Mark knew that moving to Texas to work for one of the premiere departments in the nation was his destiny.  After working with mainly vegetation control in the Huntsville area, he was asked to move to Wichita Falls, in order to open and establish a new district office over a seven (now eight) county North Texas area. 

                In 1992, he made the move to Wichita Falls, hit the ground running as District Management Supervisor, and never looked back.  Within six months he had found suitable office space (which has since become the prototype building for district offices throughout the state), hired a staff, and forged palatable relationships with not only folks in the city of Wichita Falls, but also in surrounding towns and small communities. 

                Mark’s passion was connecting children and youth to the outdoors; he strived for them to make that link.  He had an unbelievable work ethic, instilled in him as a young child, growing up on a wheat farm in rural Kansas.    It was there he first fell in love with the outdoors, being introduced to hunting and fishing by his dad, a farmer with a degree in Microbiology.  His mother, a farm wife with a Botany degree, shared her love of wildflowers, native grasses, ecology, and birds with Mark.  This was the beginning of a love affair with God’s creation that continued until his death.  He took those great loves and translated them into actions the entire time he was with Inland Fisheries.

                Mark wanted more than anything to use his position with Texas Parks and Wildlife to make his area of North Texas a place where abundant, fun fishing abounded.  He wanted to create opportunities for kids to learn how to fish, in circumstances where they could be successful.  He was a champion of nature, teaching techniques for fishing to young and old alike, using every opportunity to demonstrate ethics, good stewardship of resources, and ecology education.  He knew that if he could get a youth “hooked” on fishing, chances were that would lead to a whole new appreciation for the out of doors…and hopefully a lifetime of fishing and communing with Mother Nature would follow.

                Early on his love of teaching children and adults about fishing was firmly established.  He and his staff began teaching an afterschool program for kids, fishing at a local city lake.  Always one to promote the sport of fishing, Mark was truly excited whenever a child would catch a fish.  No matter the size of the catch, Mark made each and every kid feel special.  One friend stated that “Mark was so enthusiastic.  He gave the utmost attention and praise to each child as the brought in their catches for weighing and registration.  Even if it was a tiny fish, not much bigger than a minnow, he complimented the child on his fine catch!!! Each and every child felt like they had caught a prize winning whale.”  (Dian Hoehne, Texas Master Naturalist member).  He provided fishing opportunities for adults and children at the local state hospital, kids at the ARC, Rehab Center patients, and Helen Farabee Center patients.  He realized that the abundance of single-parent households provided yet another opportunity for connections, targeting that demographic, too, for teaching.

                Mark believed with all his heart that finding a way to connect kids with the outdoors, whether by fishing, going on a nature walk, or through various other opportunities, was the key to ensuring that future generations of Texans would have lakes to fish and swim in and native areas in which to hunt and camp.  He made it his personal and professional mission to make that happen.

                He forged mutually beneficial relationships with the city of WF Parks and Recreation, with Northwest Texas Field and Stream, travelled to speak at various city councils, groups and organizations, with the goal of creating and maintaining great fishing in his lakes, good shoreline and angler access, and promoting angler education and ethics.  His work with Kid Fish through the early years provided not only many occasions for thousands of kids to fish, but also allowed him to procure grants from that organization which improved angler & boater access at several of his area lakes. 

                He mended fences with the Law Enforcement Division of TPWD; before Mark’s staff came to town, there was a bit of friction between Inland Fisheries and the game wardens.  Not a problem since.  He embraced the work of the game wardens, offered his staff’s help in whatever endeavor they needed, and he was highly regarded by their local ranks.  Over a dozen showed up in full dress uniform to honor him at his funeral.

                Never one to just sit at his desk, Mark was active in many aspects of the community, involving himself in both boards and committees within TPWD, as well as out in the community in general.  He was a valued member of the WF Parks Board for almost nine years.  Jack Murphy, Director of Parks and Recreation recalls: “Mark was a most valued member of the Parks Board, holding several leadership roles.  I so enjoyed Mark during the meetings and at the many fishing events and activities in which he would provide guidance and support.  The loss of Mark leaves a void in professional expertise that he so willingly and enthusiastically provided for our community.  He was a friend that I regularly leaned on for creative advice and support.   Mark did good work, and I feel that his nomination to the HOF will be very favorably reviewed.”

                His leadership on the Lake Wichita Study Committee led to a change in the flood control project for the entire city of Wichita Falls.  He and the committee convinced the city that lowering the lake level to 3.5 feet, reducing its size by over 1000 acres, would leave the lake nothing more than a big mud hole.  Because of the committee’s efforts, Lake Wichita is once again a jewel for the city, with improved trail access alongside it.  The trail sees lots of traffic from bikers, joggers, and walkers.  All love to see the wildlife around the lake.  Fishermen still catch big channel cats & crappie there, and recreational opportunities abound. 

                He heavily promoted the Division Angler Recognition program, and the lakes in his district began to show the tangible benefits of it, as many new water-body lake records were recorded.  He was very keen on giving young and not-so-young alike their “first fish award” certificate, sending information to Austin on a regular basis.  He didn’t care if the angler was 5 or 25…a first fish was a first fish, and was cause for great celebration and recognition!

                Mark had a knack for surrounding himself with good people.  During his tenure, he hired and mentored several biologists/technicians who have gone on to bigger and better opportunities.  Some include Brian Van Zee, now TPWD Regional Director over this part of the state; Todd Driscoll and John Findeisen, now TPWD lead biologists in Jasper and Mathis, TX; and Scott Robinson and Mike Wilkerson, who are highly regarded fisheries biologists in their home states of Georgia and Ohio.  His current staff had been with him well over a dozen years, and include assistant biologist Robert Mauk, and Wes Dutter and Steven Hise, technicians. 

                He constantly updated brochures & documentation to help the general public in their quest for outdoor recreation.  He began writing for the local paper part-time, and began a weekly column in 2007 about the outdoors that continued until his death.  His articles focused on various themes, but more often than not, it all came back down to the basics for him—getting outdoors, encouraging less “screen time” and more “green time”, and educating folks on being good stewards of the environment.

                His friendship with Beverly Williamson began well over a dozen years ago.  She had a dream for a nature center in Wichita Falls.  They were kindred spirits, both having great passion for children and the outdoors.  He was responsible for helping procure a TPWD grant for River Bend Nature Works (now River Bend Nature Center).  He served in various capacities on the RBNC board for over 8 years, as what started out as a concrete slab on a hilltop became a multi-million dollar facility.  As Deanna Watson, Editor-in-Chief of the Times Record News, and fellow RBNC board member recalls,” Mark was always someone you wanted on your board.  He was financially savvy & fiscally responsible.  He wouldn’t let us spend money we didn’t have!”

                For a time in 2008, he stepped in as RBNC Interim Executive Director, while still performing his duties with TPWD.  During this period, he secured a meeting with the city’s 4-B board, which provided RBNC monies it so desperately needed to complete their indoor learning center and children’s garden.  This single act enabled RBNC to become truly a year-round facility, able to serve thousands of school children on an annual basis.  He worked closely with RBNC until his death, overseeing and stocking the huge natural aquarium housed in their butterfly conservatory.  He provided leadership, advice, and put on educational programs for classes.  Each year, he and his staff would set up their mobile aquarium on Earth Day to the delight of school children in attendance. 

                He established the Rolling Plains Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists in 2001, serving as chapter advisor and mentor until his death.  Graduates of those classes continue to educate the public about the environment, serving as volunteers and mentors at various events throughout the year.

                There’s not enough room or time to list all of the reasons why Mark Howell deserves this honor.   He was a gentleman, a scholar, an advocate for fishing and the environment.  He loved his adopted state of Texas.  No one did more to promote public awareness as well as influence public policies for fishing in this 8 county district than Mark Howell.  His legacy lives on in the hearts of everyone that loves recreational fishing.  For the past 20 years, the public has reaped the benefits of his and his staff’s hard work, and that work has ensured that future generations of Texans will continue to reap the benefits of his vision for years to come.  Whether fishing for channel cats at Lake Wichita, walking the trails of River Bend Nature Center, or enjoying the beauty of a sunset through cypress trees at Lake Arrowhead, you can thank Mark Howell for his vision, his passion, and his public duty. 
Respectfully,

Nancy Heath Howell

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Christmas, 2012

Christmas, 2012