'A wonderful human being': Bill Howe poured himself into his work and community
Bill Howe's list of volunteer activities was legendary, from serving on numerous boards to starting Bemidji’s youth hockey program.
BEMIDJI — “He was Bemidji, and he loved it.”
Those words from a fellow banker speak volumes about Bill Howe, whose life will be remembered and celebrated at St. Philip’s Catholic Church at 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 17. Howe, a bank president, community leader, military veteran and athlete, died on Jan. 24 at the age of 94.
The words were spoken by John Baer, who remembers Howe as a friendly rival businessman from the days when Bill headed Northern National Bank and Baer did the same at Security Bank USA.
“I’m not sure there’s anybody I’ve ever respected more than Bill Howe,” Baer said. “This guy treated me with such respect and kindness. He just was a very special guy.”
Howe did indeed pour himself into his community. He was born in Bemidji and was a standout athlete at Bemidji High School, then served two years in the U.S. Navy before attending Bemidji State College, where he played football, hockey and golf.
He married high school sweetheart Bette Imler and the couple raised five children. Bill and Bette were married for 53 years until her death in 2001.
Howe joined Northern National in 1950 and served as president of the bank from 1968 to 1985. His list of volunteer activities was legendary, from serving on numerous boards to starting Bemidji’s youth hockey program.
He was recognized with an Outstanding BSU Alumni Award, headed the BSU Foundation and founded the Bill and Bette Howe/Jolly Erickson Scholarship Fund at BSU. He was honored by the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce with the Charlie Naylor Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.
“Bill was a wonderful human being,” said Dick Robbins, a friend and fellow Bemidji Town and Country Club member. “I think everybody who knew Bill respected him. They also appreciated him for what he did for everybody.”
One time after Howe could no longer play golf, Robbins took him to the country club on a men’s day. They drove around the course on a cart and greeted many of his friends who were playing that day.
“We stopped and talked to each foursome,” Robbins recalls. “Every one of the people made a point to come over and shake his hand. That showed a lot of respect. We got into the clubhouse afterward and people just kept streaming over to his table. That’s the kind of respect people had for Bill.”
Robbins, a retired teacher, said he enjoyed many rounds of golf with Howe but had an amusing story about his friend.
“For a banker, he wasn’t very sharp with his arithmetic on the golf course,” Robbins said with a chuckle. “I know he needed the money real badly, and took it away from us poor school teachers. We had to do a little sharpening of that pencil to try to get the score corrected. But Bill was always the one who bought the first drink.”
Joe Welle, former chairman of First National Bank Bemidji, remembers working with Northern National and Security on funding projects that one bank would not necessarily take on alone.
“My fondest memory would be about those business deals that we worked together on,” Welle said. “We cooperated and tried to work out the deals together, any situation that we felt was good for the community and would do something for more employment and spin off other businesses in the community. Bill did a lot for the community, he had the community’s best interests at heart.”
Baer agreed, saying, “Bill or Joe Welle would call me and say, ‘Let’s put together a loan with the participation of all three of us, and let’s give them a real strong rate' … it was more of a civic mentality, to support our community.”
Robbins added, “The thing that impressed me about all three of those family-owned banks was the fact that they cared for Bemidji. They were Bemidji people and what was good for Bemidji was good for the banks.”
John Baer had the final word about Bill Howe:
“He was a fine, fine gentleman,” Baer said. “I could never say enough about Bill. He was something special. He was a great example for many, many of us.”