From the archives: Preservation NC director gives CPR to state’s historic buildings
Editor’s Note: J. Myrick Howard previously was honored as a News & Observer Tar Heel of the Week. This story was originally published Aug. 10, 1997. He was named The N&O’s Tar Heel of the Year in 2023.
J. Myrick Howard produces a key to the door of the old Briggs Hardware building on the Fayetteville Street Mall and promptly confronts a circumstance that, at one level or another, defines his life’s work: The door is stuck shut.
Given that this is frustratingly common — Howard, who last week began his 20th year as executive director of Preservation North Carolina, has grown accustomed to facing obstacles, doors included — he’d be forgiven an outburst. A hearty shove, at least.
Yet despite the jam, Howard is tenaciously patient. Even though there’s a meeting demanding his attention in 15 minutes, and the building he is supposed to be showing is sealed tight, he remains perfectly at ease, willing instead to discuss the exterior renovation that soon will transform the four-story structure from its current state of neglect to the glory of its past.
And why get all flustered, really? A couple of workmen soon appear and solve the problem. Within minutes, the door is flung open and Howard, as usual, is in.
“His ego never gets in the way — never, never,” says Carol Wyant, director of statewide partnerships for the Washington-based National Trust of Historic Preservations. “He focuses on the mission and, if one way won’t work, he finds what will.”
Howard’s steady leadership has made Preservation North Carolina one of the nation’s premier historic conservation groups, Wyant says, comparable in scope and achievement to groups in Georgia, Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania and Utah.
His group has risen in stature along with his reputation — a 20-year evolution inextricably linked. When Howard joined Preservation North Carolina in 1978, he was 25 years old and fresh out of college. He became the assistant director of the nonprofit foundation, which is dedicated to saving the state’s historic buildings and places.
It was a part-time post — one that he chose over a full-time position offered by the National Trust in Washington. But Howard says he was never torn between the two offers; he wanted to stay in North Carolina.
Such a commitment to place, he says, is deeply rooted. He grew up in a house that his grandfather built 80 years ago in Lakewood, a working-class neighborhood in Durham. His mother moved there when she was 3 and still lives there. His father, a machinist at American Tobacco, never worked anywhere else.
“I grew up with stability and continuity,” Howard says. “I had a real sense of place.”
He remembers how, when he was a kid, such Durham landmarks as the Benjamin Duke mansion were torn down — “to make way for motels and in some cases to make way for nothing,” he says.
So by the time he went to college, his career track was set. First he studied at Brown University, then at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he collected three degrees. He says he remembers telling the dean of the law school that he was pursuing his law degree to go into historic preservation.
“He laughed,” Howard says. “Now they ask me back to talk about alternative degrees in law.”