Surgeon, sailor, fly-fisherman, and emerging poet, Roger Stephen Howard died peacefully in Tampa, Florida, on November 24, 2018. He was 70 years old.
Roger was born on April 28, 1948, in Ancón in the U.S.-administered Panama Canal Zone, the first child of Robert A. and Margaret C. Howard (née Mayerchak). He grew up in Detroit, Michigan, attending parochial school at Our Lady Queen of Hope parish on the city’s west side and the University of Detroit High School, where he excelled as a sprinter on the school’s track team.
In the spring of 1966, during his senior year, Roger set a new Catholic League record in the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes, winning all-Catholic, all-city, and all-state honors. An article from the school newspaper on “The Howardian Era” in U of D track and field described one of his races: “An airless, panting, joyful pair of lungs; a weary, bulging pair of legs; a sweating, swirling head: it is all over. Roger Howard has just set another school record.”
A first-generation college student, Roger entered Michigan State University in the fall of 1966, intending to major in Forestry. Soon, however, he made the switch to Psychology (his bemused father liked to say that he went “from studying trees to studying people”). At MSU in the late 1960s, Roger was also a campus activist, serving for a time as the head of a student organization dedicated to fighting racism in the white community.
Late in his college career, Roger decided that he wanted to become a doctor. He spent a fifth year at MSU taking the necessary science courses, graduating with a B.S. degree in 1971. He attended Wayne State University Medical School in Detroit, graduating in 1976 with a specialty in surgery; worked as a surgical resident at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan (where he met his future wife, an emergency room nurse named Nancy Rimar); and practiced for many years as a general surgeon in Oakland County, Michigan. He was a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, a member of the Michigan State Medical Society and other professional societies, and an author of articles in the clinical literature in publications such as Archives of Surgery, Clinical Nuclear Medicine, and Gastroenterology.
In his early 50s, Roger was diagnosed with Wegener’s Disease, a rare auto-immune disorder of unknown etiology which can lead to kidney failure. Although the disease did not prove fatal, many months of dialysis and steroid treatments followed. Roger was unable to continue the practice of medicine, so he reinvented himself as a hospital administrator, earning an online MBA and eventually becoming senior vice president and medical director at Beaumont’s branch hospital in Troy, Michigan. According to a Beaumont colleague, Roger was “a strong, quiet leader who led with his heart; kind, appreciative, understanding, with a genuine interest in those around him.” Later, he worked part-time as a physician advisor at Executive Health Resources, part of Optum, the health information technology and services firm of UnitedHealth Group.
In the lottery of life, Roger had his unfair share of health problems. In addition to the Wegener’s, he suffered from chronic back pain, due to severe compression in the cervical disks of his spine, and Parkinson’s Disease. But poor health did not stop him from exploring new interests up to the very end of his life. In 2016, he moved to Clearwater, Florida, and began actively pursuing what had heretofore been largely a private passion: the writing of poetry. He was a frequent participant in writing groups at the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center (SHAMc) in Safety Harbor, Florida, and succeeded in publishing his poems in a variety of print and online literary journals. One he entitled “Fifty Years from Now”:
Fifty years from now I plan to be lost for a while, grateful for all the lives I no longer have to live.
My chemistry, and the salts of my smile will ripen with the universe and I will taste, at last, the raw stuff of the cosmos.
I will see the clarity of darkness and, like Don Quixote, I will not spend my time separating what is real from what is not, for there is no difference in our hearts.
Like Santiago, I will row across the Southern sky. Orion, bright Sirius and all the Pleiades will be my comfort in the night and Electra my sustenance and my light.
And I will meet Ulysses on the shore of the Happy Isles where I will bathe in the warmth of those companions Circe has undone.
Fifty years from nowI will harden sail against the solar winds and dust the planets with my wake to gather Queequeg and Ahab from their oceanic seclusion.
All will be quiet. Only the poets will be given the privilege of voice, for the essential things are too invisible for common words to see.
Yet, in an instant, one half century will have come and gone, as an eclipse darkens and blanches against the light.
I cannot wait.
Roger is survived by his wife Nancy Rimar Howard of Troy, Michigan; his son and fellow surgeon Dr. Ryan Howard (and wife Carol Gray) of Ann Arbor, Michigan; his son Zachary Howard of Troy, Michigan; his daughter Leah Howard of Brooklyn, New York; and his brother Robert Howard (and wife Leslie Schneider) of Newton, Massachusetts. His family accompanied him in the last weeks of his life.
In lieu of flowers, Roger and the family ask that you send contributions in his memory to the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center (SHAMc), 706 2nd Street North, Safety Harbor FL 34695. Celebrations of Roger’s life will be held at a later date in Clearwater, Florida, and in Troy, Michigan.