John Howard, founder of The Rockford Institute (publisher of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture), passed from this world on August 7, 2015, a week shy of his 94th birthday. He is survived by his wife, four children, and nine grandchildren. A memorial service in his honor was held on August 29 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Rockford. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Plot No. 1, alongside his illustrious ancestor, John P. Manny.
While born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, John Howard had roots in Rockford among the Yankee families that had founded the city and its early industries: the Mannys, Sacketts, Emersons, Brantinghams, and Starrs. Indeed, John seemed to be related in some way to about half of the old families buried under the elegant Victorian tombstones found in Greenwood Cemetery, a mile or so north of The Rockford Institute on Main Street. He attended the exclusive North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka. And when it came time for higher education, he naturally headed east to the Ivy League, specifically to Princeton.
Yet in no way did this background generate in John Howard a sense of privilege. To the contrary, he keenly felt a sense of duty: to his family and its legacy, and to his nation. In 1942, after studying at Princeton, he entered the U.S. Army as an enlisted man. For the next three years he served in the 745th Tank Battalion of the famed First Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”). Between D-Day and V-E Day, John experienced 11 months of continuous combat in Europe. This included intensive engagement during the Battle of the Bulge.
Today, the word hero is badly abused, being assigned to just about any member of the military who does his (or her) job adequately. John Howard was a genuine war hero, earning two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, and a battlefield commission. John reported that, on his discharge, he committed himself to the mission of sustaining America’s Christian ideals and liberties, for which many of his friends had recently fought and died.
Having known the man, I have no doubt as to the authenticity of this pledge.
Following the war, family obligations kept him closer to home. He resumed his academic work, now at Northwestern University, earning a B.S. and an M.A., and a Ph.D. in French Literature. In 1951, he married the Iowa-born Janette Marie Nobis. They would have four children: Marie, Steven, Martha, and Katherine.
In 1947, John took a position as an instructor at Palos Verdes College in California. A few years later he became dean of students, and in 1951, at age 29, the college’s president. He left that post after four years to become executive vice chairman of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Committee on Government Contracts. This was the first effort to use federal contracts to open jobs for qualified minority applicants. Committee members included labor leaders such as Walter Reuther and George Meany; John reported to Vice President Richard Nixon.
In 1960, John accepted appointment as president of Rockford College (now Rockford University). The venerable school, originally a women’s seminary in the 19th century, was in a tough spot. Its original campus was in a deteriorating neighborhood, and the trustees had resolved to build a new campus on the city’s burgeoning east side. However, they had no money. John took on the effort to build, and to pay for with private donations, 25 new buildings. He transformed the college from a small campus that served local students into a national institution, bringing prominent national leaders onto the board of trustees and recruiting students nationwide. He restored the college chaplaincy and the practice of invocations at college events, tripled faculty salaries and began a pension program, and raised both the quality and the size of the student body.
John also established a reputation for the college as a bastion of conservatism within a surging leftist academic sea—the Hillsdale College of its day. In the early 1960’s, he was a strong opponent of efforts to open federal funding to private higher education, presciently arguing that such aid would compromise the autonomy of recipient schools. In this campaign, he cofounded (and served for three years as president of) the American Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Toward the end of that decade, John became a fierce foe of the “counterculture” and the student radicalism sweeping American campuses. He saw these movements as profound threats to academic integrity, ordered liberty, and the American identity. His public debates with self-proclaimed Maoist Prof. H. Bruce Franklin of Stanford University appeared as a book, Who Should Run the University? He also went head to head with leaders of the Berkeley “free speech” movement. In 1969, his old boss—now President Richard Nixon—brought John onto the White House Task Force on Priorities in Higher Education, to suggest ways to calm the turmoil on American campuses. Alarmed by the destructive human and social consequences of the drug culture, John accepted another presidential appointment in 1971, this time to the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse.
The Rockford College campus became a venue for a long string of conservative speakers: Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, William F. Buckley, and future President Ronald Reagan, among others. John gained election to membership in the Mt. Pelerin Society and the Philadelphia Society, and served as president of the latter in 1979-80.
To gain more coherence for his efforts, John launched The Rockford College Institute in 1976. He understood that the ideological struggle consuming American campuses was primarily cultural in nature, and that the emerging conservative movement—which tended to focus on opposing communism and promoting “free enterprise”—was weak in this arena. Accordingly, he recruited the émigré Polish writer Leopold Tyrmand to launch a new magazine, Chronicles of Culture. Fully aware of the sordid intellectual backgrounds of the American New Left and counterculture, Tyrmand was relentless in excoriating them. John came under pressure to rein Leopold in.
Instead, he decided in 1977 to step down as college president to become full-time director of the Institute. Over the next two years he convened national conferences on the campus, which were focused on “Capitalism and Culture” and “Corporate Responsibility” (toward American ideals). “The Family: America’s Hope” was especially significant, as it was the first important gathering to document and assess the family decay that had come in the wake of the 1960’s.
Finally, and inevitably, the renamed Rockford Institute became independent of the college in 1979 and moved to its present location on North Main Street, on Rockford’s west side. I joined the Institute staff in 1981, first as assistant to the president, and then as executive vice president. I also took over editorship of a monthly monograph series called Persuasion at Work. In the beginning, it examined organizational and intellectual expressions of the hard left in America. Over the next several years, the focus fell exclusively onto family questions. (In 1987, it would become The Family in America, now published as a quarterly journal.) Thomas J. Fleming joined the Chronicles staff in 1984, becoming editor on Leopold Tyrmand’s death in 1985. Other initiatives by John in these years included the convening of a conference in Frankfurt, Germany. Entitled For Your Freedom, and Ours, it drew intellectual and political leaders from across the continent. And he created The Center for Religion and Society, with offices in Manhattan. Richard John Neuhaus served as its first director.
Turning age 65 in 1986, John Howard chose to retire, saying that it was time for a new generation to assume leadership of the projects and causes that he held dear. Over the next 29 years, he continued to write and speak on issues vital to the American future. His books from this time include Detoxifying the Culture; Christianity: Lifeblood of America’s Free Society, 1620-1945; and America’s Best Colleges! Really? In 1997, he helped guide the spin-off of several Rockford Institute programs into an independent Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, named in his honor. Among these programs was The World Congress of Families, which has since evolved into the leading international forum for pro-family leaders and organizations. John received honorary doctorates from Grove City College, Rockford College, and Brigham Young University.
In a time of marijuana legalization, same-sex marriage, and widespread religious apostasy among American elites, some might be tempted to judge John Howard’s pledge in 1945 to have been taken in vain. They would be wrong. Despite setbacks and betrayals along the way, John never grew angry, and he never gave up. He deeply believed in the prospects for American renewal; and, as a devout Christian, he knew full well about the Ultimate Victory. Almost to his dying day, he optimistically continued to design new strategies that would return this nation to the ordered liberty bequeathed by the Founding Fathers.
Rest in Peace.