Service with a smile

Published 9:26 pm Saturday, April 13, 2013

Most folks in Suffolk who know Dr. Leroy Howell, who will be celebrated this week as Suffolk First Citizen, believe he is a selfless, giving person.

But the Rev. Mark Burns, former pastor of Oakland Christian Church, has another theory.

Dr. Leroy Howell

Dr. Leroy Howell

After many years of eating the homemade peach ice cream and banana pudding Howell, a dentist, brought to various church functions, Burns began to suspect Howell was merely promoting his business.

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“I thought he was so selfless, and he was handing out all this sugar so people would go to the dentist,” Burns joked recently.

All jesting aside, Burns and everyone else who talks about Howell can’t help but wax sentimental about the man who seems to be able to do it all — military service, city government, community affairs, nonprofit organizations, church commitments and running a business — with a smile.

Howell didn’t grow up in a dentist’s family. His father worked at the Saunders Lumber Company in Chuckatuck, and his mother kept house for the five children.

Howell was called into dentistry because he “thought it would be a good profession, a good way to serve,” he said. One of his brothers’ friends went to dental school, and he became intrigued.

“I always liked working with my hands,” said Howell.

Howell went to dental school at the Medical College of Virginia and was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army Dental Corps. After completing his active-duty service, he returned home to begin his practice but remained in the Army as a reserve officer, retiring in 1964 at the rank of major.

His practice, now located on Western Avenue across from the downtown post office, has served Suffolk for more than 50 years. Howell has also served the profession as president of the Tidewater Dental Association. He also holds fellowship status in the Virginia Dental Association, American College of Dentists and International College of Dentists. He also has received the Richard Simmons Award from the Tidewater Dental Association for outstanding service to the profession.

Dentistry may not have once been the family profession, but it is now. Two of Howell’s brothers and, later, one of his two sons also joined the dental profession.

“I am very blessed,” Howell said. “I have a good time every day I go to work. The people I work with are wonderful.”

Howell’s son Ralph works with his father at his practice.

“He’s been a great role model and good business partner,” Ralph Howell said of his father. “He’s got a very loyal group of patients that he’s treated for over 50 years. It’s not untypical for him to have patients that drive a couple hours for a dental appointment.”

With his career in dentistry, it’s perhaps not surprising that Howell has plenty of experience keeping things straight.

His reputation led to his service on the Suffolk City Council immediately after the 1974 merger.

“I had a number of people ask if I would consider it,” said Howell. “Other people thought I might be able to do a good job, and they thought I had the interest of the community at heart. I’m not doing it for personal gain.”

Howell said since his business was in downtown and he lived in Chuckatuck, folks thought he would be able to balance the semi-urban and rural interests.

His colleagues on the council during his one term agreed.

“He didn’t have any hang-ups between the county and the city — or he never showed it, anyway,” former mayor Andy Damiani said. “He was always a team player. He was more a statesman than a politician. He never wanted to be a politician.”

One of Howell’s main contributions was helping hire the first city manager, Damiani said.

“We didn’t have time to go looking all over the world for one,” Damiani said. “We had to find one close by. That was one of the main things that showed his leadership.”

Howell also has served as a past member of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and on the Suffolk Airport Commission.

Howell’s experience on search committees served him in good stead at his church, Oakland Christian, where he led the committee that hired former pastor Mark Burns.

“For me, he puts the Christ in Christian,” Burns said recently. He was pastor at Oakland Christian for 18 years before leaving last year to serve at a church in North Carolina.

Howell has served as a Sunday school teacher for more than 50 years and as moderator for nearly 25 years. He also has served on the Board of Deacons and the Budget and Finance Committee.

“Leroy’s of the generation that if you weren’t sick and you weren’t away, you were in church,” Burns said. “He’s the last of a wonderful generation.”

Burns recalled that Howell always quietly provided turkeys and hams for holiday baskets to deliver to needy families. And then there was the famous homemade peach ice cream he brought to church functions, made from the fruit of the trees in his backyard.

The Rev. Janet Weidler has served as interim pastor in the year since Burns’ departure. Even in her short time knowing Howell, she has plenty to say.

“It doesn’t take long to find out what kind of person he is,” Weidler said. “When I first came here, everybody was friendly to me, but he was just especially welcoming and supportive.”

Weidler said Howell has the unusual ability to serve without feeding his own ego.

“I think the way he related to other people draws out the best in other people,” she said. “He’s authentic. He truly serves and cares out of a sense of deep caring and concern for the people he’s working with.”

Howell is putting his searching skills to work again on the committee to hire a permanent replacement for Burns, Weidler said.

“He’s shaping the future now.”

Howell’s church service has also led to other ventures, most notably his service with United Church Homes and Services and Lake Prince Woods.

In 1978, Howell was appointed to a committee to study developing a retirement community in some part of Southeastern Virginia, according to Lee Syria, president and CEO of United Church Homes and Services.

Howell agreed to serve and didn’t stop until 2002, when Lake Prince Woods ultimately opened in Suffolk.

“He gives it 150 percent, because if he’s going to commit and believe in something, he’s going to do everything he can for that organization,” Syria said. “I think he just is such a genuine and unselfish person, he just does whatever he can to better his community and people in general.”

After the opening of Lake Prince Woods, Howell served as chairman of the board of the United Church Homes and Services and since has been honored as board member emeritus while continuing to serve on the United Church Homes and Services Foundation Board.

“Without him, we would not have that facility in Suffolk or Southeastern Virginia,” Syria said. “He’s really been instrumental in expanding our ministry into that region.”

Judy Raymond, executive director of Lake Prince Woods, echoed praise of Howell.

“He was probably one of the first people I met when I came to work here,” she said. “He is our ambassador, I think, in Suffolk. When you meet him, you feel like you’ve known him. He’s just a very nice, genuine person.”

Howell’s service to his alma mater, Elon University, ranks among one of what he believes is his greatest accomplishments. Howell was a member of the college’s Board of Trustees for more than 20 years, helping it grow from a small private college to a premier university with honors for its business, arts and law schools. Howell has been elected trustee emeritus on that board, as well.

His community service doesn’t end there, however. He has been a dedicated member of many other organizations, including as past president of the Chuckatuck Ruritan Club, past president of the Suffolk Rotary Club and past vice-president of the old Dominion Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, where he has received the Silver Beaver Award, God and Service Award and Good Scout Award.

“I think that’s good discipline for any young man or woman,” Howell said of Scouting.

He also serves as a member of the Birdsong Trust, which oversees giving to local organizations that meet certain criteria.

“Leroy has total integrity,” said Billy Chorey Sr., also a member of the Birdsong Trust. “Leroy has much wisdom, huge character, is easygoing and very articulate with his decision-making within our trustees.”

Howell will be honored as First Citizen by the Suffolk and North Suffolk Rotary Clubs this Thursday, April 18, at 6 p.m. at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. Registration is $30 per individual. For more information, visit