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He Let His Millions Do the Talking

Wesley Howard left his fortune for the creation of a youth park. Funny thing, the cantankerous Oregon recluse didn't seem to like kids.

August 20, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

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. Kids 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."

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 kids would just 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," Bryant said.

On Halloween, 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.

Which is why, on a recent weekend, a crowd of 1,200 people gathered at the Howard farm for an auction of the man's belongings. His house was opened up. For many, including neighbors who'd known him for decades, it was the first chance to glimpse the interior of a very private life.

Medford sits in the heart of the Rogue River Valley, bordered by foothills to the east and west, with California just a 20-minute drive south. It's still mostly a farming region, although Medford, with 66,000 residents, is a fast-growing town with slick new strip malls and housing subdivisions that all look alike.

At the edge of all this uniformity, in the northwest corner of town, lay the Howard farm, a sprawling flatland that had mostly gone to seed. It used to be a real farm, with alfalfa and oats on one side, cattle on the other. But for the last 30 years or so, neighbors say, the land lay barren except for a grape orchard and fruit trees that Howard tended until the mid-1990s.

The house sat in the middle of a grove of oaks, many of them dead. It was built in 1890, hadn't been painted in a half-century and took on the color of the oaks: grayish-brown with tinges of black. Moss climbed up the sides and onto the roof. From the road, about 50 yards away, the house looked, as one neighbor said, "ready to fall."

The Howards were well-known by many Medford residents, but nobody knew them better than their longtime neighbors.

Here's what those neighbors know: The farm was purchased from the U.S. government in the mid-1800s by a person believed to be one of Howard's grandparents. It was then sold to Howard's parents, Roy and Dora Howard, who had an only child, Wesley. He was born on the farm in 1916, and as far as anybody knew, never left the Medford area.

Dora died first, in 1964, and then Roy, in 1972. Since his father's death, Wesley Howard lived in the house by himself, and apparently had a strong aversion to throwing things away.

"Let me show you something," Bryant said on a recent afternoon, leading a visitor to the back of Howard's house. "Look under there," she said, gesturing to a crawl space under what used to be a back porch. "All of them that he ever wore."

Crammed into the space, as far back as you could see, were countless pairs of boots, each worn down to the thinnest fabric and sole.

Going inside the house was like entering a time capsule. Both floors were stacked ceiling-high with neatly bundled newspapers and magazines dating back to the early 1900s. Medford schools have no record of Howard attending classes, but he obviously liked to read, his preferences leaning toward Field & Stream and Outdoor Life.

Walking space in the house had been reduced to "snail trails" from doorway to doorway.

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