I heard about The Hon. Phillip Howerton’s death in an email to Mecklenburg County Bar (MCB) Past Presidents. His daughter Ashely and I grew up in Charlotte and have crossed paths from childhood through today. Ashley’s mother, Mary, was the Executive Director of the Mecklenburg County Bar for many years. We crossed paths too.

As a young lawyer, I volunteered to write articles for the Bar newsletter introducing our local judges on a personal level, beyond the formalities and the stiffness of the courtroom. Judge Howerton (Ashley’s dad and Mary’s husband) kindly agreed to be my first subject.

When I wrote to Ashley to express my condolences, I mentioned the article I wrote about her dad in 2006. Ashley asked me for a copy. I dug it up. Re-reading it myself for the first time in 15 years, choked me up. I sent it to Ashley, who very much appreciated it. Now, I would like to share it with you in fond memory of a great man.


To Athens with Phil

Article originally published in The Mecklenburg County Bar News, October 2006, Volume 33 No.4
By Tricia Morovan Derr

“Athens,” he said, “noon on Friday.”

“Great,” I thought as I hung up the phone, never having seen the place in the light of day. Not the kind of restaurant for a veggie burger or tuna nigiri.

Having no idea what Judge Philip F. Howerton Jr. looked like, other than the description that he had white hair and a white beard, I arrived at Athens at 11:55 a.m. on Friday. A quick check with the hostess confirmed that he had not yet arrived. After all, he does not get there until noon, and it was only 11:58 a.m.

She told me you could find him there most days, sitting in the same booth in the middle, third from the right, facing the door. “We know him by ‘Phil’ an’ he don’t like it much when you call him ‘Judge’ here.” She swished and motioned me to follow her. She took me to “his” table to wait.

At 12:00 sharp the Judge walked in the door. I immediately knew it was him. Not because he looked like a judge or because he had white hair and a white beard, I knew it was him because I saw the surprise on his face when he saw a stranger sitting at “his” table. A moment later, his eyes flashed a twinkle of recognition as he realized that it had been properly reserved per protocol. His face lightened as he introduced himself, the corners of his mouth turning up ever so slightly under his white beard.

His iced tea was there before he sat down. Judge Howerton looked nothing like I had imagined. Neatly dressed, he carried an air of Ernest Hemingway with a twist of Jacques Cousteau. Unassuming and genuine, he would look equally comfortable in a pickup truck or a Mercedes Benz. I began my questioning a bit uncomfortably, “We’re planning on writing an article about you in the upcoming MCB newsletter… It was Charles Keller’s idea. He thought you would be an interesting person to write about.

So, tell me about yourself.” I immediately kicked myself for the vacuum of creativity. No novice to the interview process, Judge Howerton paused and politely responded, “What is it that you would like to know?”

In an awkward moment of silence, I rummaged for the list of interview questions I borrowed from Corby Anderson (with permission, of course). Pulling a rumpled sheet of paper from my purse underneath the booth and dipping my arm in Greek salad dressing in the process, I continued, “Tell me about some of your life lessons.”

Judge Howerton took the list of questions from my hand, turned them over, and placed them down beside his tea. As Judge Howerton started talking, I quickly found not only that the table afforded little space for my note pad, but that his stories lent themselves to a listener rather than a scribe. I abandoned my note-taking efforts and concentrated on his stories of “Old Charlotte,” his career, and his life’s journey. My questions seemed to come easier after that.

Phil Howerton learned the first of many life lessons at 11years old when his mother died. His father, finding himself a widower with a young boy, hired a housekeeper, Ada. As fate would have it, Ada was the foundation for many of his life lessons. She taught him appreciation, respect, and perhaps most importantly, she taught him to cook—a skill (and hobby) he still uses every day.

In the eighth grade, Phil’s cousin convinced him that they should go to boarding school. After many long discussions with his dad, Phil finally got what he thought he wanted and entered Woodberry Forest in 1950. Two days after arriving, his cousin decided to return home. With his cousin gone, Phil became incredibly homesick. He called his dad regularly pleading to let him come home. Every time he asked, his dad gave the same response; “You’re no quitter. Stick it out a few more weeks.” Weeks turned into years and Judge Howerton graduated in 1954. At Woodberry, he learned another life lesson: Finish what you start.

At 16, the Judge’s father decided it was time for his son to work at home during the summer. Having a lucrative insurance business with over 40 employees, Mr. Howerton could have easily hired his son to a plush office job. Instead, Mr. Howerton made sure that his young son learned the value of hard work.

“You’ll be working on the docks,” he was told. “Eighty-five cents per hour.” His father framed his first paycheck for $43.00, which reflected a significant amount of overtime pay.

Within three years of summers on the docks, young Phil had gained 25 pounds of pure muscle, loading 55 gallon drums by hand truck onto trailers. He learned the true meaning of teamwork and to respect the men who worked on the docks day in and day out. He also learned that the guys on the dock had a different system of respect than he was used to: It didn’t matter who you were or where you were from, you only earned respect by literally carrying your own weight.

After high school, Judge Howerton spent four years at Davidson and was nearly kicked out for cutting chapel. His father knew the dean of the college quite well and could have easily asked for a favor to get his son out of the mess. As always, however, Mr. Howerton was determined to teach Phil to deal with the repercussions of his decisions. No favors.

During his last year at Davidson, a recruiter came to campus. Judge Howerton and his buddies stayed up late one night talking about their future. Together, they made a pact to answer the call to duty. The next day they signed up for the United States Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School. A week later, he and his buddies came to Charlotte for their Marine Corps physicals. Phil was the only one that passed. He spent nearly four years in the service and traveled all over the world.

“What did you think about the Marines?” I asked.

He sat there for a moment, staring out the window at the hustle and bustle of Independence Boulevard. He furrowed his brow, deep in thought, and ran his fingers through his white beard. A wave of nostalgia washed over his face as I sat still, unsure of whether or not I should interrupt. The Judge looked down at his plate, studied it, and took a bite of his fried flounder. “Best thing I ever did,” he said.

“So what’s your next question?”

After the Marines, Judge Howerton spent two years at the school of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, graduating with honors. After obtaining his Master in Public Administration in 1963, he went on to law school at the University of Virginia.

“Why law school?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied matter-of-factly. Nevertheless, Judge Howerton has invested 40 years in the law. He spent several years at Moore & Van Allen and in private practice before moving to the District Attorney’s (DA) Office. After leaving the DA, he worked as a public defender before becoming a district court judge. His crowning achievement is the institution of a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) Treatment Court in Mecklenburg County, which is one of the first in the country and one of the most successful programs ever created. The DWI Treatment Court focuses on providing treatment for offenders, often in lieu of, or in combination with, license suspension, jail time, or community service.

After ongoing and often politically charged discussions over the format and budget for the DWI Treatment Court, in 1992 Judge Howerton decided to take the initiative and create his own program. In doing so, he created a courtroom that ran entirely on volunteer participation. No budget, no funding, no promises.

Today, although funding remains a struggle, Mecklenburg County has increased its program to running four DWI Treatment Courts every week. Under his leadership, the DWI Treatment Courts have enjoyed tremendous success, with an estimated recidivism rate of only four percent.

“Most alcoholics, down deep, want to get and stay sober and get their lives back to normal,” he said, speaking from experience. Having been sober himself for 17 years, Judge Howerton understands the recovery process and the support network necessary to get and stay sober. Through his perseverance and initiative in Mecklenburg County, many addicts have found their way to recovery and have become contributing members of society. Every now and then he gets a thank you note from a prior offender. He keeps them all.

On the weekends, you can find Judge Howerton working in the Cherry Neighborhood garden he has tended for years, where he grows tomatoes, corn, and okra. He is also a talented woodworker, concentrating on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American furniture. He has built over 80 pieces of furniture for his friends and family. In fact, to this day, Ed Hinson uses a stand-up desk in his office that Judge Howerton crafted especially for him.

Just as Judge Howerton put the last bite of flounder into his mouth, the waitress appeared with the bill. Although he never asked, the bill was meticulously separated so that only his flounder and iced tea appeared on his tab.

“Well,” he said softly as he rose from the table taking a last sip from his tea, “anything else?”

“I just need to take your picture for the article.” Without skipping a beat, Judge Howerton moved to the empty booth across from ours, sat down, looked into the camera, chuckled, and gave an ear-to-ear grin that would make Jim Carrey jealous.

On my way back to the office, I reflected on our brief, but intense encounter. How fitting, I thought, that he would choose Athens Restaurant. After all, both are Charlotte institutions that somehow thrive in the midst of changing times and landscape. They stay true to themselves, who they serve, and what they have to offer. Nothing too fancy—just the staples served up with hard work and no surprises. You will always get what you came for and every now and then, you might even get a smile.

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