It was 1946, and Roy Otwell knew what Forsyth County was missing, so he went to the Emory School of Medicine to recruit a dentist. The county had never had a full-time dentist.
There he found Avery Y. Howell Jr.
Howell Jr. was just graduating and perhaps looking to settle down. He wasn’t keen on returning to the cold and snow of his native Boone, North Carolina, and he’d recently met Montine Tatum, of Alpharetta, by a clever trick: She’d come in to one of Emory’s free dental clinics, and upon seeing her Howell Jr. deliberately switched with another dentist so he could work on her. They courted and soon married.
So Otwell helped set up an office for Howell Jr. on the lower floor and an apartment for the couple on the second floor of a building in the Cumming square where the Forsyth County Administration building currently sits. The office was covered in knotty pine, and the upstairs apartment was close enough to a gymnasium to hear much of the action. Forsyth County now had a full-time dentist.
But Otwell brought the county more than a dentist.
Howell Jr. left an indelible legacy on Forsyth County beyond his dental practice, one that touched the county’s education, government and religious institutions nearly up until he passed away Monday, April 30 at the age of 95.
He was a charter member of the Cumming Kiwanis and helped organize the first local United States Junior Chamber program. He served on the Cumming City Council, the Civil Service Board and the Tax Equalization Board. He was a deacon and taught Sunday school classes at First Baptist Church of Cumming and then was a charter member of Cumming Baptist Church. He helped start the first high school marching band program at then-Forsyth County High School.
“He gave us all so much of himself in the community and in the schools,” said Julianne Boling, a close friend of the family.
Howell Jr.’s dentistry background lent him to making one of his more unique impacts in the county. From his time in the war, Howell Jr. became familiar with research on why a segment of U.S. soldiers had less tooth decay than other soldiers. The soldiers turned out to be from an area of Colorado where the water naturally contained fluoride.
So Howell Jr. pushed for the municipal water system to add fluoride to the water treatment plant during his tenure on city council from 1962 to 1966.
“Brought it to this little county,” said Howell Jr.’s son, Avery.
Howell Jr. was born April 5, 1923 in Boone, North Carolina and went on to attend the University of North Carolina. He played the French horn in the university’s marching band, and music became an enduring passion.
Howell Jr.’s four children – Tricia, Keith, Baxter and Avery – each played an instrument growing up. “It had to be brass,” Avery said. He piped music through his dental office, rigging speakers in each room from a turntable that played John Phillips Sousa and other classical music.
The family eventually moved from that first apartment to a brick home they built on Ridgecrest Avenue, and they lived next door to then-Forsyth County High School principal Clarence Lambert. Howell Jr. and others convinced Lambert to start the county’s first high school marching band. He was the band’s first booster club president. They bought trailers and uniforms and set the course for what eventually became the Flash of Crimson Band.
“He kind of had the vision, with several other men,” Avery said.
But Howell Jr. also used music as a psychological weapon.
Ping pong was a regular pastime for the family, and before a game began Howell Jr. would blare marching music. Just before a serve, Howell Jr. would distract his opponent with the challenge to name the song playing.
“Then, BAAM! He’d send a serve,” Tricia said. “Then he’d say, ‘Be sure to tell your children and your grandchildren that your old father beat you at ping pong.’”
An accident forced Howell Jr. to retire from dentistry in 1978, but his work in the community persisted. He was part of the Civil Service Board’s three-person panel that arbitered grievances between the county and its employees. Howell Jr. often came home with six-inch-thick briefs presenting both sides of the case.
That suited Howell Jr. He was an avid and disciplined reader, particularly of the news, with a specific regimen he followed: first the Forsyth County News, then the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, followed by his hometown newspaper Watauga Democrat, U.S. News & World Report, Time and Car and Driver.
And so Howell Jr. became known for his integrity and thoroughness in his 26 years on the Civil Service Board.
“He studied those cases,” Tricia said. “He just wanted to be so fair and know all the details.”
Howell Jr. gained a reputation as a Southern gentleman. He wore a coat and tie almost every day, including Wednesday, his day off. His reading gave him the necessary material to be known as a gripping conversationalist with a quick sense of humor.
“He was charming in every way,” Boling said. “When he had a conversation with you, you felt like you were his focus.”
Behind all of Howell Jr.’s many pursuits was Montine, Avery said. She ensured he took supplements and vitamins. She snuck him chocolate and cookies in the hospital, even near the end. They were married for 72 years.
“Everything he was able to do all that time was because of (our) mom,” Avery said. “He had so much support.”
It was Montine who finally convinced Howell Jr. to step away from some of his civic involvement as he neared 90 years old. He stepped down from the Tax Equalization Board first in 2014 after 22 years, then the Civil Service Board soon after.
He passed, and then family and friends gathered at Cumming Baptist Church on May 2 for his funeral service. Avery and one of Howell Jr.’s grandsons, Justin, spoke, and they shared stories, like the family trivia games in the car during trips to Boone to visit Howell Jr.’s parents.
Boling recalled one story of how Howell Jr. made sure to send birthday cards regularly. Each time he finished the card with two words.