Late last week, Gary Howard gave me a call just to shoot the shit. After I hung up, I thought to myself how crazy it was that I actually know Gary – that he’s an honest to goodness pal of mine. See, growing up I had posters on my wall of his cars and a stack of magazines with features of the same. While kids in the 1950’s had Barris, Wilhelm, and Winfield to admire and obsess over, I had Gary Howard. To me, he was the king of custom cars and no one else was close.
Often times, when you put a person on a pedestal like that and then by some chance get to know them, the grandeur smudges and they become something more realistic. Very few people in this world can live up to the kind of peerless expectations that a teenager can put onto an idol. I know Gary. He is a really close friend of mine. And he has lived up to every single ounce of greatness I ever placed on him as a kid. To this day and in my mind, he remains the best custom car builder/designer to ever grace this planet – and, in my opinion, second place isn’t close enough to mention.
A few minutes ago, Steve called me with the worst possible kind of news – Gary had passed away this morning.
I haven’t cried like this since my dad passed away a few years back. It surprised me a little bit, but now that I’m sitting here and writing this I am starting to understand why. Yeah, Gary was my favorite custom car builder ever… But, he was so much more than that. To our Austin crew, Gary’s craft was really more of a sidebar than anything else. It was a way to get to know him. And if you were lucky enough to do that, you got one of the best pals you could ever have.
Back in 2007, I was freshly moved to Austin and had just gotten up enough nerve to ask Gary for an interview. He agreed and I drove out to his place on a really gorgeous Saturday morning. I was so nervous about hanging out with a hero that I must have smoked a pack of cigarettes on the way out there. I got lost, had to call for directions, and ended up being an hour late. As I rolled up and got out of my car, all I could do was apologize and hope for the best. And with Gary, that’s what I got.
We hung out for most of the day, had lunch, and I headed out right before dinner. On my way to the car, he handed over a crate of old Rodding & Restyling Magazines saying, “You are about the youngest guy I know that would appreciate these. Do your thing with them.”
That was really my first exposure to who Gary Howard actually was beyond the legendary car builder. Through the years we got closer and as my wife got to know Jo Ann (his wife), we just sort of fell into being family friends. I’ve never taken that for granted – not for a second. It just seemed like the more I got to know Gary, the more I found to admire. He was just sort of everything I hoped to be – quiet, unassuming, sweet… but driven and passionate at the same time. He went his own way and carved all kinds of paths into this world, but did it without getting into anyone else’s way.
I’ve got a lot of friends that I hang out with and sometimes I wonder if this dude or that guy actually likes me or simply tolerates me. I think it’s normal creeping self doubt that everyone has at one time or another with their pals. It’s something I never had with Gary. I sit here right now and I can say with 100% confidence that Gary loved me. And that sounds like a selfish line of thought given his passing today, but it’s actually a trait that Gary had. He didn’t talk much and when he did, he certainly wasn’t talking about his feelings on that level… But he just had a way about him that let you know how he felt. He was comforting like only family can be.
It’s that comfort that I’m gonna miss the most… and I think that’s why our Austin crew is hurting so badly right now. There is no replacing Gary Howard. There just isn’t.
When Steve called with the news earlier, we were both crying like babies. In between the babble, he asked me if I could write something today. I would have anyways obviously, but it sort of opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of the Austin crew would be reading this. And fellas, I don’t know what to say or do… I don’t know how to appropriately navigate all of this with words. I really don’t. I’ve tried hard to elaborate on what it was that made Gary so special to me… us… I just don’t think words will work. There are none.
I do, however, know that I love all of you guys like family. Sincerely.