Cantankerous loner gives estate to Oregon youth park

Friday, August 22, 2003

MEDFORD, Ore. -- Old Man Howard spent decades chasing children off his farm, shotgun in hand, watching little legs spin like windmills into the distance.

Generations considered him the meanest man in Jackson County. But to others, Wesley Howard was simply an oddity: a loner who never married, who never left Oregon and who lived his whole life in the same place he was born, a century-old farmhouse without phones or toilets. Children saw it as a haunted house; passersby photographed it as an artifact.

In March, at age 87, he died of a stroke, enigmatic and inexplicable to the end. Howard, it turned out, was rich. Few knew. He bequeathed his entire estate, worth more than $11 million, to create a youth sports park on his 68-acre farm.

The surprise gift has cast Howard in a whole new light, causing residents to question whether they ever knew the real Wesley Howard.

An editorial in the Medford Mail Tribune opened with this line: "We'll never know if Wes Howard had a Scrooge-like epiphany or if there was always a charitable soul hidden beneath his gruff exterior."

'Blown over'

Gene Glazier, who lived across from the Howard farm for five decades and whose own children were chased off the property, said he was "blown over" by Howard's last act.

"We had no idea. A kid's park," Glazier said with astonishment.

A few of Howard's neighbors had a different take on the old man. Ivan and Twyla Bryant, who lived across from Howard for 44 years, recalled a gentle, extremely private man who was constantly harassed by neighborhood children.

The Howard property lured the curious; some children would poke around his barn and orchards. Others would hit golf balls to break his windows. They'd pick his grapes and eat his peaches. They'd sneak into his fields and hunt for quail and pheasant.

"You can torment anybody to where they have to do something," Twyla Bryant said.

On Halloween, Twyla Bryant said, any child brave enough to knock on Howard's door would get an apple and a pencil and even, if you looked carefully, a slight curve of a crooked smile. And that was as close to Howard's house as most people ever got.

"Old Man Howard would bring out his shotgun and shoot rock salt at us, yelling and running around in his pickup," said Jack Gundlach, one of those children who is now 45. "He was a cantankerous old boy. ... We just thought he didn't like kids."

According to documents filed by his attorney, Howard's 68 acres were worth $8.2 million. He owned another 10 acres nearby worth $1.8 million. He had municipal bonds worth well over $1 million, plus more than $70,000 he kept in a checking account.

"Howard was content with who Howard was," Byant said.

Gundlach said he was moved by the old man's last act, and, like a lot of people in town, was re-evaluating Wesley Howard.

"It changes everything," he said. "It changes my ideas of him, guaranteed, and it makes me think that maybe I shouldn't have been such a rotten kid."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: