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Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010 03:52 am

The final round

A Springfield boxing legend remembered


John Luther Howell (bottom left) with members of the SHA Cobras boxing team, which he coached for more than 50 years.

On a warm October day at the Harriet Tubman Susan B. Anthony Center on Springfield’s east side, 30 to 40 young men and boys dressed in gym clothes amble into a narrow room that seems to double as storage space. Though they range in age from about 10 to 30 years old, they laugh and joke among themselves as if they are family. An older man with salt-and-pepper hair stands near the front, observing quietly as the room fills with energetic youth. He seems soft-spoken and gentle, but as he utters a sudden, forceful command to line up, the whole group snaps to attention. He only has to say it once.

It’s a training session of the Springfield Housing Authority’s Cobras boxing team, and the respect and reverence displayed by the group for their leader rivals that of an elite military unit. The head of that club is Luther Howell, who at the time was fighting cancer in his final months of turning Springfield street kids into disciplined athletes. Howell died Feb. 13 at the age of 75, leaving behind a legacy of more than 50 years of teaching and mentoring.     
“He was a father figure, both to us and to everyone else,” says Howell’s daughter, Linda Harman. “Even as a single father, he was always there. He worked two or three jobs to keep us all together, and he still made time for everyone.”

John Luther Howell Sr. was born Aug. 15, 1934, in Brownsville, Tenn. He was one of nine children, growing up exploring the woods near the family’s home. Younger brother Arthur Howell remembers hunting rabbits with Luther, laughing as he recalls the time they scared up a rabbit that chased Luther away.

“He didn’t know what it was, but he sure ran,” Arthur jokes. “We just couldn’t stop laughing.”

He remembers his older brother as a gentle, patient role model who was always fun to be around.

“We would disagree about things, you know, but we would never fight. Our parents would never let us fight,” he says. “I really looked up to him.”

Howell poses in his boxing gear while in the U.S. Air Force, circa 1954.
Luther Howell joined the U.S. Air Force after high school, working as a teletype repairman while stationed in Korea and Japan. It was there that he developed an interest in boxing, earning the Far East Lightweight boxing title and the nickname “Hookin’ Howell.” When he returned to civilian life, Howell was asked by a local pastor to help out with one of the numerous boxing clubs that used to exist on the city’s east side.

Howell’s work with the boxing club produced Harvey Richards, who represented the U.S. in the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow, heavyweight pros like Willie Perry, numerous Golden Gloves winners and several other notable names in boxing. More importantly, he became a role model for hundreds of kids over the years, says his son, James Howell.

“He was the Pied Piper of Springfield,” James jokes. “They saw his van coming, and the kids just ran to him.”

James Howell says he plans to continue the boxing legacy his father established.

“I can’t be him, but I can do the best I can,” he says, adding that his father never slowed down and never complained, even as his body was invaded by cancer.

“He was a warrior, a soldier, a leader … a strong-powered man” James says. “He was a soldier who hid his wounds and kept fighting.”

James recounts the positive influence his father had on his life, urging him to do his best and stand up for what is right.

“God placed me in his arms for a reason. He wanted to lead me down the right road,” James says. “He was a person who I would follow to battle to this day. When he became a Black Panther, I became a Black Panther with him. When he stood and picketed outside the police station, I was picketing right with him.… He was very assertive, a go-getter. When he wanted something, he went and got it. He didn’t sit and wait on anybody.”

Another of Luther Howell’s daughters, Dora Johnson, says Howell earned the respect of both kids and adults in their community.

“There would be other parents who would call him when their kids got in trouble and say, “Coach, what do we do?’ He was respected everywhere.”

Howell shows his boxing form during a practice of the SHA Cobras boxing team.
Her favorite memories of her father include their family Christmas celebrations, when he would gather the family for prayer and thanksgiving.

“All of us didn’t like to talk, so he’d make us get into a circle and pray,” she says, nodding in agreement at the mention of the phrase, “peacemaker.”

“Especially when it came to his family,” adds Harman. “He didn’t like no mess. He wanted to keep everybody on top of things. He was a strong, loving family man.”

Howell’s granddaughter, Indya Richards, began training with Howell at age 15, and she laughs as she remembers how he went easy on her when she first started.

“I told him I wanted to train and do the same stuff as all the boys,” she says, smiling and holding back tears. “He said, ‘Are you ready? Are you sure you’re ready?’ I’m doing exercises and I look up, and he’s smiling. I’m punching the bag, and he’s smiling. Every time he smiled, he just lit up a spot in my heart.”

Once she got into the swing of training, however, she says Howell pushed her to be her best.

“Nobody would even know I was his granddaughter,” she says. “He didn’t treat me any differently. He treated everybody the same and he pushed us all.… I liked being around him all the time. He was funny, loving, caring. He always had a name for everybody. Mine was ‘Stripes.’ ”

Besides Howell’s work with the boxing club, he was also a community activist, working with the Streetside Boosters and serving as a precinct committeeman.

“Everybody just loved him,” recalls Linda Johnson. “If people asked him for something, they could always count on him.”

Howell leaves behind a wife, Gertrude, three sons, two daughters, 15 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren, and several other relatives.

“We’ll miss you, Daddy,” Johnson says with tears at the corners of her eyes. “We love you and you’ll always be in our hearts.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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