Editor Note: This month the Spy will be launching a Centreville edition to complement its sister educational news portals in Chestertown, Talbot County and Cambridge. In keeping with a tradition of dedicating a Spy newspaper to unique Eastern Shore leaders we have long admired we have selected the late Howard Wood for that recognition. We asked Maria Wood, Spy columnist and granddaughter of Howard, to share her memories of one of Mid-Shore’s true conservation heroes and and put a well-deserved spotlight to a rare breed of citizenship. The Spy is currently having a startup campaign for the Centreville Spy which can be found here.
Howard Wood was a sailor, an attorney, a humanitarian, a conservationist, an adventurer, and my grandfather, not necessarily in that order. He devoted most of his long life to the Eastern Shore, particularly Queen Anne’s County. From the family farm on the Chester River, and his office six miles away on the corner of Lawyer’s Row in Centreville, he was a champion and steward of the natural beauty and abundance of the land and water, and an advocate, helper, and friend to the communities and people who live here.
A man can go by many names in 91½ years. There were those who called him Howard, but they may have been in the minority. To many, from all walks of life and of all ages, he was “Mr. Wood.” Even today it’s not hard to find people who speak of him with almost disbelieving affection, respect, and delight. Anyone in his family is familiar with the conversation:
“Oh, you’re Mr. Wood’s granddaughter/son/nephew/
…and off they go, telling a story, maybe of how he helped them, or improved something, or, just of a consistent reliability, doing more than required, in his methodical, mild-mannered, lawyerly view of the world. Off the top of my head, I can think of Black watermen, white farmers, skipjack captains, hunters, teachers, and many more with whom I’ve had a version of this conversation. Someday I’ll have it for the last time, but 15 years after Mr. Wood’s death, it’s still going strong. I feel both proud and inadequate every time.
To my grandmother, he was “R,” a mutual nickname they used nearly unfailingly, entirely mysterious to their grandchildren. In my own memory, he was “thee” to his siblings, with whom he followed the old-school Quaker practice of second-person singular pronouns. In possibly history’s politest protest movement, this usage was the early Quakers’ rejection of the second-person plural “you” customarily used to indicate deference to those in a higher social echelon. By the time it was in my grandfather’s lexicon, I think “thee” was somewhere between an endearment and a habit, but the Friends’ stubbornly egalitarian worldview in which it was rooted resonated deeply with the way he treated people and the way he presented himself.
Eventually he was “Dad” to his children, and then “Granpa” to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of my favorite memories is arriving at my grandparents house with my infant daughter, the first child in her generation. Granpa threw open the front door, bellowing “WHERE is my GREAT granddaughter?” At 84 years old, arthritic, and with little hearing left, his excitement at meeting the new baby made him perhaps more ebullient than I had ever seen him.
He loved sailing more than almost anything. He was an original member of Corsica River Yacht Club, whose somewhat scrappy nature suited the Howard Wood ethic of focusing on what mattered. One of his guiding principles was “do what the weather tells you to do.” If the wind is right and the river is calling, don’t let the day go by without getting on a boat—there will be plenty of hot swampy days when the air doesn’t move to tend to bookkeeping or yard work. In his youth, he sailed on his Uncle Harry Wilmer’s sloop Elizabeth, and raced one-designs in regattas around the Chesapeake for decades. With Bill and Norman Grieb, his neighbors from across the river, he sailed on the log canoe Mayflower, exploits that Bill and Howard’s sons recounted just last week on a July 4th sail around Comegys Bight in Howard’s old daysailer.
He crossed the Atlantic Ocean by sail in a grand adventure that was a pinnacle of pride and delight. Maybe even more adventurously, he spent nine months in 1968 sailing down the inland waterway and to the Bahamas with my grandmother and my then-7 year old uncle. His 90th birthday celebration was a sail on the skipjack Elsworth with a crowd of family and friends, courtesy of Captain Andy McCown of Echo Hill. His love of “messing about in boats” lives in his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. If everyone in the family has a little Chester River water in our veins, it’s from him.
He’s been fêted for service of organizations and institutions around the bay. A pioneering conservationist on the Eastern Shore, he was a founder of the Queen Anne’s County Conservation Association, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, and the Chester River Association, which became one of the legacy organizations for the mighty ShoreRivers. He was a trustee with Maryland Environmental Trust, and in 1987 he was Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Conservationist of the Year.
He was involved with the Critical Areas Protection Act, which passed in 1984 and remains a significant tool for protecting the bay and its shorelines. In cooperation with the University of Maryland, he made Indiantown a demonstration farm in the 1980s, helping to establish best management practices for water quality protection while incorporating the economic and practical realities of real-life farming.
Yet, there was more to Howard Wood’s contributions than protecting and preserving the land and water. People had to be in the picture as well. For over 42 years in his law practice, he helped people who needed it, without regard to race or class, a not altogether common philosophy at the time. After his (semi-)retirement, his old clients still called on him for assistance. He said “they’re like members of the family.”
During the civil rights movement, he proposed that the Centreville Town Commissioners establish a biracial committee through which Black residents could express what they needed and wanted, and the white executive and legislative officials could, by listening and acting, begin to address the issues and possibly avert the unrest that would rock nearby communities in the years to come. There were surely other factors that kept Centreville relatively peaceful in those years compared with neighboring county seats, but this straightforward, reasonable approach from a community leader may have helped.
In 1992, responding to a severe housing shortage, Howard and Mary Wood established the Spaniard Neck Foundation to raise money for low-interest loans and grants to help with housing related costs. Governor William Schaefer recognized their efforts in 1988 when the He served on the board of the Kent & Queen Anne’s Hospital, as a director of the Centreville National Bank, on the Maryland state Attorney’s Grievance Commission, and on the vestry of St. Paul’s Church in Centreville.
The list of such accomplishments is too long to fully explore here. But in my observation, personal relationships were his most important contributions to the Eastern Shore. That’s why so many people are still excited to talk about what he did for them, and with them, and the way he made them feel. Last week at a 4th of July crab feast, I heard just such a story.
It won’t surprise you to learn that high-speed internet was a long time coming to the farm. As recently as 2009, in a quest to do better than dialup, a family member looked into broadband. There was a chance a signal from an old fire tower across the river could do the trick, so two technicians drove out to assess the situation. After a search for a suitable site—close enough to the house, with an unobstructed line of sight, and access to electricity, it was not looking good. There was some discussion of trying the roof, but the guys understandably looked askance at that prospect. During the friendly chitchat as they wrapped up the disappointing housecall, one of the technicians realized where he was.
“Oh, is this Mr. Wood’s place? Oh yeah, I’ve been here before, I remember him. He was a good man. This one time… ”
… and he was off. It emerged that in the days of the Spaniard Neck Foundation, in addition to conveyancing deeds, administering loans, and untold other tasks associated with such an endeavor, Mr. Wood had invited kids from the families the foundation was working with to the farm. He taught them to swim and to row a boat, and if my own childhood is anything to go by, probably got them to pick up some sticks, too. He gave them a good time and made human connections, making manifest his instinctive understanding that conservation means little if the people in this unique place don’t take the time or have the opportunity to commune with the land and the water.
Those warm memories of a childhood day on the farm buoyed the now-grown up internet specialist, and he had a brainstorm. Maybe he could catch that broadband signal after all. A little more testing and fiddling, and he found an auspicious spot on the far edge of the front lawn. Pretty soon, a clip from the David Letterman show was streaming in, at a bit rate beyond dial up wildest dreams. There’s almost nothing about that sentence that my grandfather would have understood, or found relevant, but that’s progress for you, even on the Eastern Shore.
Saving the Bay: People Working for the Future of the Chesapeake, quotes Howard Wood as saying “Part of the Bay is beyond the borders of the stream. It includes the land, forested shorelines, the historic landscapes, a sense of heritage and place, and the connection to the people who live on the land and water. Those may be more important than just straight water-quality issues. Certainly here on the Eastern Shore, along these rivers, in these communities, on these family farms, all of those things tug at our hearts.”
The practical, patient way that he lived that insight is what brings smiles to the faces of those who still remember Mr. Wood with such delight. Because sharing what he loved about this place was almost as important to him as helping people get into safe, clean homes, the splashes of a boy into the Chester River on a hot and sticky summer day rippled through the decades, eventually bringing YouTube to the 11th generation of this family on the old farm beside the river. Those ripples and many others, large and small, endure—a legacy, and an example for the rest of us.
Maria Wood traveled throughout the country as production and tour manager for award-winning musician David Grover, with whom she co-founded a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing education and fostering positive social change through music and music-making. She returned to school mid-career, earning a BA in American Studies and a Certificate in Ethnomusicology from Smith College. More recently, she has written and taught on the meaning and impact of the musical Hamilton, served as Deputy Campaign Manager for congressional candidate Jesse Colvin and was Executive Director of Chestertown RiverArts. She lives in a multigenerational human/feline household in Chestertown.