By Tom Still
MADISON – Last Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving, I spoke to Brian Howell over the phone. He asked how I was doing, we chit-chatted about a project that was important to him, and he asked me to hug my 16-month-old son for him.
Nothing unusual about that conversation – except that Brian was within three days of losing his fight against lung cancer.
Howell, 53, the editor of Madison magazine and a longtime colleague at the Wisconsin State Journal, died Sunday night from a disease that kills more people each year than breast, colon, prostate and pancreatic cancer combined. He fought it to the end, not only with relentless optimism that masked how serious his condition was from the day it was diagnosed, but with a sense of purpose that reflected his journalistic training.
Although there were good days and bad for Brian during his bout with cancer, he didn’t waste any. He researched his condition and the treatment options like an investigative reporter, no doubt peppering his doctors with questions about the most cutting-edge clinical trials. Brian learned things about the biotech community in Madison and beyond that few insiders really knew. And he was encouraged by the promise for better diagnosis, treatment and even cures.
He also kept up with his work at Madison magazine, a publication he loved and essentially rebuilt after he became editor in 1997. We talked often about the direction of the magazine and its relevance in an age when monthly publications are so often replaced by hourly Internet reports.
Instead of railing against technology, however, Brian embraced it. He instinctively realized that part of Wisconsin’s future – not to mention the future of the Madison area – was tied to development of a healthy tech sector. So he retooled the magazine to reflect changing economic times, instituting news, features and columns that examined the assets and challenges of the state’s “knowledge-based” economy. When the magazine’s “Best of Business” awards were announced earlier this year, all three winners had technology ties.
Through his writing and his actions, Brian always exuded hope. He was thankful for what he had, starting with his family – wife Pat, daughters Katie and Allison, and son Joe. He was thankful for having overcome some obstacles. He was thankful for the chance to ride the Harley-Davidson that represented his mid-life crisis. And he was thankful for that final hunting trip a few weeks ago with his father and brothers in South Dakota, where he grew up on a farm.
As we celebrate another Thanksgiving in America, we can learn a lesson or two from the Brian Howells among us. Life is too short to squander. Making every day count is a clich’, perhaps, until you really have to make every day count. But there’s no need to wait until you’re confronted with a deadly disease. Brian Howell didn’t wait ‘ he vigorously pursued life long before he was sick.
Maybe that was the attitude, the approach to life, which allowed him to enjoy it longer than most people who struggle with his disease. Be thankful this Thanksgiving: There are people out there like Brian Howell who are pushing the envelope for all of us.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.