Featured Alum: Ben Howerton

by Lynn Bell

Third Retirement, Fourth Career

Ben HowertonBen Howerton (M.Ed. ’67, Ed.D. ’71) is three years into his third retirement, but he is now so busy with nonprofit work that he considers it a fourth career.

Howerton first retired in 1992 at age 50 from the Commonwealth of Virginia, where he worked his way up the ranks from substitute teacher to state superintendent. He spent four years in the private sector then joined the faculty of George Washington University for stage three of his career evolution. Now that he has retired again, Howerton finds himself maintaining a nearly full-time schedule of not-for-profit activities.

Help other people be successful, and that will enhance your own success.

This triple-’Hoo is approaching his fiftieth undergraduate reunion and is looking back over an exhilarating professional journey.  Underlying the success of all his careers is a philosophy he learned  while earning two degrees from the Curry School’s educational leadership program:

“Help other people be successful, and that will enhance your own success,” Howerton remembers hearing repeatedly from professors like William Sewell and George Holmes. “They were absolutely correct,” he says.

Career Stage 1: K-12 Education

An “accidental educator” is the term Howerton humbly uses to refer to his career beginnings. In 1963, he earned his baccalaureate degree in religious studies and philosophy from the College of Arts & Sciences. He jokes that his parents gave him options for college: They said he could attend any university in Charlottesville to which he could be admitted.

He started law school but discontinued and later accepted a position as a long-term substitute teacher for a sixth-grade classroom in Virginia Beach. The next year, he was offered a provisional one-year contract and began taking education courses at U.Va.’s off-Grounds center in Hampton Roads to earn certification. His third year in, the principal began giving him some administrative duties.

“I was hooked,” Howerton says.

An interview with the Curry School’s Professor Sewell convinced him to return to Charlottesville for his graduate degree. “He must have spent two hours with me, and by the time we finished, I realized I wanted to get my degree in educational leadership,” Howerton says.

In His Voice: Ben’s Grad School Experience at Curry

Immediately after completing his degree, at age 26, he was offered a position as assistant principal of Walker Junior High School and the next year as principal of Johnson Elementary, both Charlottesville City schools. Johnson had an enrollment of about 900 students and was in the throes of full school desegregation efforts.

More about Ben’s experience with school desegregation in Virginia »

After three years, Howerton moved to the central office. He then spent 1970-71 in residence at Curry working on his doctorate degree. Sewell, his dissertation advisor, happened to live a few blocks from him.

“He would call and say, ‘Mr. Howerton, I have your chapters. Let’s get together, my house, 5:30 a.m.,’” Howerton remembers. “He was a rather remarkable man.”

With his doctorate work completed, was invited to join the Curry School faculty in 1972. He served on the Curry search committees that recommended the appointment of Lynn Canady and Jim Esposito. He also served as an executive with the Virginia School Boards Association.

“I learned tremendously about school boards,” he says. “I knew the state like the back of my hand.

Thus, in 1975 he was invited to become assistant state superintendent for administrative field services. From there, he worked his way up: associate state superintendent for curriculum and instruction…deputy state superintendent…chief deputy state superintendent.

Ben’s experience with the evolution of Virginia education in the 70s »
In His Voice: Ben’s Father Was Desegregation Role Model

Near the end of Governor Gerald L. Baliles’ term, Howerton became interim state superintendent, a political appointment that lasted only until a new superintendent was appointed.

“I internalized very quickly that the State Superintendent was a political position,” he explains. “I was the shortest serving state superintendent in the history of the Commonwealth.”

He did, however, have the opportunity to oversee the development of the initial version of the Standards of Learning, the Beginning Teachers Assistance Program, and the Family Life Education Program. “The latter was almost the early end of my career, and the controversy was overwhelming,” he says.

After a final year in state administrative service, Howerton retired at age 50.

Career Stage 2: Private Sector Entrepreneurship

Howerton then entered a four-year venture in the private sector. He became president of Virginia Information and Education Utility, which subsequently became Synergy. The company pioneered the concept of shared usage of government-owned technology for distance education. “It was the right time, and it worked,” he said.

After moving the company to Booz Allen in 1995 he moved on to his next career stage. It was during this time, he says, that he realized that leadership was leadership, regardless of the arena.

Career Stage 3: Higher Education

Howerton had continued teaching Curry courses every semester for the two decades after leaving Charlottesville. He had also maintained his interest in the law and continued taking education law classes over the years. He advanced his interest in educational law with studies at Cornell and Harvard through intense institutes.

In 1994-95, he was asked to serve as a special assistant to the president of Lynchburg College with the assignment of expanding the Mason Center for Business Development.

Few people have made such a real difference in my life, but Henry Willett was one of them.

With a call from Henry Willett (M.Ed. ’55, Ed.D. ’67 Admin & Supv), former president of Longwood College, Howerton’s third career was launched. He was invited to join Willett on the faculty at George Washington University, where along with Greg Logan and several other outstanding faculty members, they expanded the school’s educational leadership and administration program.

“I can’t say enough about Henry as a mentor and friend,” Howerton says. “Few people have made such a real difference in my life, but Henry Willett was one of them.”

Together they transformed the graduate school from a regional, Washington D.C. based program to a nationally and internationally recognized one, says Howerton, who directed the educational leadership and administration program for over a decade. After 15 years, he retired from GW in 2010 and was honored with an emeritus professor designation.

Career Stage 4: Non-Profit Service

Throughout the course of his professional path, Howerton has applied his leadership expertise to non-profit service. He served on the Curry School Foundation Board in the late 1980s.

Today, I’m on seven boards and I am loving it. It’s a whole different career.

In 2005, he helped found The Healing Place in Richmond, a long-term residential recovery program for homeless men who are chemically dependent. Services are provided at no cost to about 100 men each year.  At the celebration of the center’s first graduating class in 2006, he met his wife, Peg Freeman, who was a director on the board of one of the center’s benefactor organizations. Peg’ enthusiasm and devotion to community volunteering has been his inspiration over the past six years.

“Today, I’m on seven boards and I am loving it,” Howerton says. “It’s a whole different career,” he adds, because they both devote the equivalent of full-time hours to their service work.

Howerton is chair of the board of trustees for the First Freedom Center, an international organization that promotes religious freedom and human rights.  The group recently won approval from the Richmond City Council to begin construction early next year on the First Freedom Center complex. A combined hotel and educational center will be built on the site where the Virginia General Assembly passed Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.

Ben and Peg have six children and eleven grandchildren between them, living across the U.S and abroad. “I have a very full life,” Howerton says.

He still consults with executive recruitment and serves as a grievance mediator throughout Virginia and beyond.  He receives frequent invitations to lecture, as well. “I love to talk about leadership,” he says. “It’s far less complicated than the textbooks make it.”

The key, he believes, is in following the advice he received from his Curry professors long ago: Help people be successful at whatever it is that they are supposed to be doing.

“I would like to think that I practiced that philosophy for the rest of my career.”