Farmer, Educator, Friend: Howard Tinkham at 100

Howard Tinkham and his extended family have worked the land in Mattapoisett for over 100 years. For Howard, that constitutes his entire life. Now on the eve of his 100th birthday, a celebration is being planned to honor not just the fact of his chronological age but also to thank the man who has done so much for his family and community over all those decades.

            We recently met Howard at his home where, over the course of 80 minutes, he expounded with extemporal clarity from one decade to another about his life and times.

            In his early life, Howard worked on his father’s dairy farm, rising at dawn to milk the cows and perform farm duties we can all imagine were physically taxing. Yet one gets the sense it was a good life filled with sibling teasing and play, including Howard’s sense of humor as exemplified when he named his pet cow after one of his sisters – Ethel. “Oh, she was riled at that,” he recalled with a wide grin.

            On the horizon for Howard and hundreds of thousands of other young men and women around the globe would be World War II. As he labored away back on the farm, he would eventually join the Army after receiving permission from his father to do so.

            “When I left for the Army, (my father) had to buy two (newly invented) milking machines and hire a man, then he knew I was worth something,” said Howard, noting that his father had confessed he would not stand in his way but that he would be, “worried about you.”

            Howard was stationed in England throughout the war planning bombing raids. He noted that there has been a Tinkham serving in every war since the beginning of the country.

            Regarding WWII, Howard recalled how the pilots challenged one another to hit their targets like a bullseye or suffer tough taunting once back on the ground. He recalled one pilot who failed to drop his lethal payload.

            “He just couldn’t do it. Whether it was his religion or something else I don’t know, but he just couldn’t do it,” said Howard, supposing it may simply have been a sudden awareness of killing people on the ground. He said that rather than a discharge, the pilot was sent away to receive care. This memory of compassionate care for a fellow serviceman during the height of war watered Howard’s eyes all these decades later.

            Never one to waste time that could be used to advance one’s education, during his deployment the former farmer took correspondence courses, he said. He could not have imagined that this would be the stepping-off point for a long career as a professor of mechanical engineering.

            Using grants offered through the GI Bill, Howard studied at the former New Bedford Institute of Technology (founded in 1899), a school primarily geared towards the textile industry, the predominate industry in the area, second only to fishing.

            “They were good at what they did,” Howard said of his time studying at NBIT.

            But technology was changing, and post-war, industrial demands meant engineering students needed more than the two-year certificate program being offered. Howard would go on to earn a Mechanical Engineering degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1949.

            There would be a series of mergers that in 1964 would find NBIT combined with the Bradford Durfee College in Fall River and later, Southeastern Massachusetts University. Today known as UMass Dartmouth, the engineering program has achieved status among other university systems.

            In a 2005 interview by Frederick Vincent Gifun, journalist for the university’s Trials and Triumphs 1960-2006 publication, Howard said, “After Worcester ‘poly-tech,’ I was immediately offered a position teaching (at SMU.)”

            For the next five years, Howard’s teaching load would be 34 hours a week in classrooms and laboratories until SMU was sufficiently funded to hire more educators. “It changed from a textile school to a technical school,” said Howard, who aided in effectuating those changes. “The 1960 course catalog contained more than just textile classes for the first time.”

            Howard would become head of the Mechanical Engineering Department as the school once again merged into the University of Massachusetts. He spent 39 years as a professor, a time that he said “was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

            Now, as he sat sharing insights into his professional life, he pointed to a black wooden chair he received from the university upon the occasion of his retirement. But what really makes him proud, “I handed out the very first Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering to Arthur Ashley. His father owned Revere Copper and Brass.”

            Sitting in his comfortable living room where he can look out an expansive picture window across a meadow and down to Tinkham Pond, Howard recalled winter skating parties.

            “My father would stack wood for bonfires, and everyone would park their cars on the grass and point their headlights towards the pond,” his face aglow, as if feeling the bonfire heat once again. Today he maintains ownership of the pond to roughly the center in an effort to conserve the land and its resources from development.

            “I don’t want to see all the forests gone!” he said.

            Some years ago, Howard was able to parlay the sale of many acres of his land to the Mattapoisett River Valley Water District with monies acquired by the towns of Fairhaven and Mattapoisett from the 2003 Bouchard Oil Spill settlement. “I always say, ‘the land that oil-spill money bought.’” He has also worked with the town and other entities to protect lands adjacent to the Mattapoisett River and river-valley watershed.

            Howard remains fully engaged in the world around him, especially matters dealing with land conservation, natural resources and wildlife. One of the latest charities he is supporting is for the protection and reinvigoration of wild and domesticated bee populations. As a cranberry grower, he fully appreciates the stress placed on wildlife by humans. He also has deeded into perpetuity 5 acres of forested land for a Boy Scout camp.

            And there has been travel, extensive travel. On a map in his living room, Howard has placed pins denoting all the countries the family has visited – crossing all or nearly all the oceans of the world, sometimes twice. He said those trips were funded by profits from his cranberry bogs.

            Of those trips, his daughter Cheryl Baum said, “It was fascinating.” But a much bigger lesson is her take-way, even more than the exotic ports-of-call they experienced. “Dad never met a stranger.” She said her father never ceased to amaze her with his ability to make new friends and acquaintances wherever they went. “He believes people are interesting, and I get that from him too.”

            In a 2018 remembrance he shared with the Mattapoisett Historical Commission as they prepared to erect an historic panel at the site of the former box-board mill that was situated at Tinkham Pond, Howard said, “A box-board mill used waterpower to drive belts that pulled pine logs into the saw blades. This was before cardboard boxes when everything from grain to biscuits was stored in a wooden box. Dried boards were sent to factories to be turned into boxes. There were several mills along the Mattapoisett River and its streams. Grist mills ran in tandem in the same mill cracking corn as feed or grinding it into meal. When I was 12, my grandfather Tom Tinkham let me open the big water wheel that allowed the water to flow into the mill. It was thrilling! He let me turn the capstan in the mill that raised the sluice gate out at the dam to start the turbine spinning as the mill came to full power.”

            An inscribed brick at the historic site reads, “Farmer, Educator, Friend,” placed there by the commission to honor Howard Tinkham.

            Howard’s parting words to us were humble when asked if looking back over the vast lens of time, he could sum up what he believes has been important to his success. “Luck! I’ve been very, very lucky.”

            A parade in celebration of Howard’s 100th birthday is planned for Sunday, November 20, stepping off at 1:00 pm from the American Legion Hall on Depot Street. The parade, in which Howard will be riding in a classic car, will wind its way along Main and Water Street to Ned’s Point Lighthouse and back to the Legion Hall. Refreshments and entertainment are also planned.

By Marilou Newell

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