The servant leadership legacy of Howard Coble

Congressman Howard Coble speaks in Greensboro in this photo from former chief of staff Marshall Hurley.

GREENSBORO — It’s been over 15 years since I first opened my passenger door to the man many knew in North Carolina as “Our Congressman.” And whether he actually was your congressman or not, Congressman Howard Coble, who preferred to be called just “Howard,” was most certainly your friend and advocate. While by title I served as the Congressman’s scheduler and district press secretary for nearly a decade, to Howard I was his “gatekeeper.” To him this meant keeping his schedule organized with driving directions, contacts and talking points, I quickly learned there was much more to the role I played. Howard Coble was a celebrity, a title I’m sure if he was here he would quickly dismiss. However, Howard was not your celebrity of today’s world of political shenanigans and disparaging attacks on an opposing party’s views or character, instead he was made of the super hero brand of politician – the ones that are practically extinct in today’s political arena. 

While today’s political pundits would consider Howard’s superpowers to be both foreign and ineffective, the down-home style of his weekly visits home fueled by his exuberant love for the very people he represented made him one of the most effective politicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. The foundation of these superpowers stemmed from his lifelong pursuit of inclusion, civility, and steadfast conviction. While many in today’s political climate defiantly believe these three attributes cannot effectively coexist in politics, Howard Coble’s legacy demonstrates otherwise. 

Congressman Howard Coble, R-N.C. is greeted upon arrival for a memorial service for former North Carolina Gov. James Holshouser at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Southern Pines, N.C., Friday, June 21, 2013. Holshouser, North Carolina’s first Republican governor elected in the 20th century, died Monday at age 78. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, Pool)

You see, on that sultry hot August day when I opened the car door on what I would later call my “Howard Coble adventures,” he disarmed me with his kind, yet jovial smile as he said “Miss Moore, it’s hotter than a tater out there.” This among many others was a line I would hear often on the days we spent traveling the 6th Congressional district. He would always remind me he borrowed it from one of his favorite West Virginia bluegrass singers. He considered himself a bluegrass aficionado. 

Howard grew up in a blue-collar family where his mom sewed pockets on denim at the old Blue Bell factory in Greensboro and his dad began his career as a sweeper and was promoted to a men’s clothing salesman at the local Belk store. He knew what it meant to have hard-working parents who were respectful and grateful for all that they had, no matter how much or how little that might be. Howard never forgot that. In fact, he was always on the lookout for those in the community who were often not seen or recognized. When he spoke to students at local public schools in his district, he reminded them to thank their teachers, principals and the custodians, that all were equally worthy of praise and admiration. He would remind students that freedom came with a cost. Howard cautioned the young minds before him “to never be casual about freedom; but instead embrace freedom very jealously, very dearly and very warmly because if you become casual about freedom, one day you will wake up and find you are no longer free.” 

Born in the community of Alamance in rural southeastern Guilford County, as a student he was considered quick-witted and intelligent, and had a particular love of the game of baseball. He joined the United States Coast Guard after a year attending Appalachian State University, serving for over five years and earning the rank of Captain. He stayed as a reservist for 18 years. He then graduated from Guilford College with a degree in history. Howard earned his law degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He spent 20 years as a practicing attorney. He served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney before winning a term in the N.C. House of Representatives. He then served as Gov. Jim Holshouser’s revenue secretary and returned to the N.C. House for two more terms in 1979. 

In 1984, Howard won the 6th District election to Congress against one-term incumbent Robin Britt. In his reelection bid two years later, he won by just 79 votes. From that time forward Howard maintained the seat for over 30 years and remains the longest-serving Republican member of Congress in North Carolina history. 

During his tenure on Capitol Hill, Howard served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as well as the House Judiciary Committee. His constituents back home, though, were never far from his mind and heart. He looked forward to the end of each work week so he could return home and leave behind what he often jokingly referred to as “the swamp.” However, when in Washington, Howard welcomed constituents, businesses and other public entities from his district. He would take the time to listen with great concern as he and his staff discerned how best to respond to their needs through legislation, federal grant funding, and congressional earmarks. Perhaps his most notable work was his desire to reform the congressional pension plan. In fact, he pledged not to receive any pension from the United States government. He told CBS Up to the Minute, “I figure taxpayers pay my salary – not a bad salary, and I figured that’s sufficient. Let me fend for myself after the salary’s collected.” He was one of only two representatives, the other being Ron Paul, during his 30-year tenure to decline their pension. 

Howard was known for both his kind, thoughtful and quick-witted personality on Capitol Hill. Just as the district he represented had more Democrats than Republicans by voter registration, Howard always thought that opposing views when worked out amicably and respectfully made better legislation. He always held fast to his conservative values and did so with civility and true diplomatic prowess. 

The greatest contribution of Howard Coble was not just that he was an effective member of Congress as proven by his leadership, but that he blazed a divergent path in the world of politics by being not only accessible, but inclusive. Howard welcomed all constituents regardless of political ideology or background to meet with him each week in his district offices. Howard was truly a public servant and adamantly believed he served at the will of those who elected him and it was not his congressional seat, but that of the people. He and his staff were known statewide for their compassionate and responsive constituent services. His favorite president was Teddy Roosevelt and he often would remind me of a famous quote by the ‘rough rider’ president that “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” 

There was rarely a weekend that Howard did not come home. It was of utmost importance to him to return each weekend so that he could be available for both his constituents’ private and public requests. He attended more than 900 eagle ceremonies and rode in over 250 parades during his tenure. While many today consider these extraneous activities, for Howard they were of the utmost importance because they meant honoring those he served and letting them know he cared. 

If you were fortunate enough to have ever met Howard you were most likely

Congressman Howard Coble sits at a restaurant in Greensboro in this photo from former chief of staff Marshall Hurley.

greeted with the request to call him by his first name. This was most often followed by the inquiry: “Where did you go to high school?” And with the same beguiling smile and a twinkle in his eye – the very features which disarmed me – he would proudly name your high school mascot with absolute precision if it was in North Carolina and oftentimes beyond. Not only did this interaction help him remember that person, but it showed with great authenticity that he cared deeply about that person and wanted them to feel comfortable and respected. He offered his services and support to anyone that asked as he truly desired to include anyone he could. His weekends were filled with chicken pie suppers in Davidson County and spaghetti dinners in Greensboro. As a lifelong bachelor his constituents were not only his friends, but also his family. 

Howard passed away on Nov. 3, 2015 at the age of 84 from complications due to skin cancer. Yet the joy he exuded lives on in the countless individuals whose lives he helped make better. He remembered everyone he met and made them feel valued. In the age of social media where personal interaction and civility are nearly obsolete, we all could look to the life of Howard Coble and be reminded that a true public servant is always of the people and for the people.