Witt Howard never met a stranger
Even in a town where so many people know so many other people, William “Witt” Howard Jr. stood out.
He not only greeted everyone — absolutely everyone — who walked into Lenoir’s Belk store by name, he asked about their family members by name and what had been happening in their lives. He was the store’s general manager from 1966 to 1993, but he helped carry customers’ parcels out to their car.
He talked to everyone, those who knew him say, and he helped anyone.
And though that surely helped his business, it wasn’t just business for him because he kept at it late into his life as an active volunteer with groups including the school system and Caldwell Memorial Hospital, and as a member of civic groups, including the Lenoir Optimist Club and the Masonic Lodge.
“I always admired him and thought he was exactly what good people should be like,” said Lida Martinat of Lenoir.
Howard, 88, died Tuesday morning.
Howard moved to Lenoir in 1928 when his father opened the original Belk in downtown Lenoir. He graduated from Lenoir High School and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a year before he was drafted into the Army in 1943. After the war, he returned to Lenoir and began his 46-year career with Belk in 1946.
He liked his customers to feel welcome, and he took an interest in each of them.
Richard Hedrick, a longtime fellow member of the Lenoir Optimist Club, said he marveled at the ease with which Howard greeted people, and his fascination one day revealed one of the ways Howard managed to remember everyone: a small notebook tucked away.
“I saw someone come in, and I was watching and I wondered if he would go talk to him,” Hedrick said. “He watched him walk all the way across, then he pulled out the notebook, looked at it, then put it away and went and talked to him.”
Knowledge of the notebook didn’t lessen his amazement, Hedrick said – it couldn’t account for all of his memory, and it still would be no small matter to organize names in a way that you could find anyone in town so quickly upon seeing one person out of thousands.
Martinat credits Howard with helping her start over in 1981 after a divorce. She had no credit history of her own, and Belk had turned down her application for a credit card, so she went to see Howard.
“I went in and talked to Witt for five minutes, and he called Belk and said he would personally vouch for me,” she said. “Unless you’ve ever had to start over, you don’t know what that’s like.”
Mayor Joe Gibbons, who has known members of the Howard family since childhood and worked for Howard at Belk during Christmas and summer vacations from college, said Howard always was deeply interested in helping the community.
“I always enjoyed talking to him about so many things going on in our community,” Gibbons said.
Howard brought the same positive attitude and high-contact people skills into his volunteer work. For instance, in his 18 years of service with the Caldwell Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, “he always came in wearing Carolina blue” and a broad smile and greeted people warmly with, “Hi! How are you today?” said Alice Whisnant, the director of volunteer services. Former patients and their families often went out of their way to come to Whisnant’s office to praise Howard and tell how uplifting and reassuring he was.
“People here would approach him, ‘Oh, Mr. Howard, I remember you. You helped me at Belk,’” she said, and the mutual recognition helped get that patient’s mind off the immediate situation in the hospital.
“He touched many people’s lives with his warm smiles and words of hope and comfort,” Whisnant said. “Witt told me while volunteering here at Caldwell Memorial for the last several years, he said, ‘It has been my life.’ He looked forward to his volunteer service.”
Perhaps he even looked forward to it as much as everyone else did.