A Life: Orin Howe, 1947-2012; ‘The Most Accommodating Guy I Ever Met’
On Father's Day, Orin Howe, center, is photographed with his children Randy Howe and Suzanne Howe-Fraser in June 2005. (Courtesy photograph)
Orin Howe, owner of Orin's Citgo on Route 12A in West Lebanon, changes the diesel fuel price from $1.99 to $1.94 per gallon on March 21, 2003, due to a decrease in price from his supplier. (Valley News - Tom Rettig)
Orin Howe shows off a fish he caught while at his winter home in New Smyrna, Fla., in Nov. 2005. (Courtesy photograph)
West Lebanon — For 30 years, Orin Howe and his muffler and brake center were a fixture on Route 12A.
Anybody who has lived in the Upper Valley for more than 10 years likely remembers Howe, or at least his service station, where drivers could find full-service pumps and get their car engine repaired. Howe could often be found covered in oil as he gave a vehicle a hot undercoat.
At 65 years old, Howe died on Dec. 28 at his winter home in New Smyrna, Fla., after battling a blood disorder. He was born on July 5, 1947, and graduated from Lebanon High School in 1965.
His service station sat on a prime piece of Route 12A real estate right off Interstate 89 where the Walgreens now sits.
That location often made him the go-to guy for break downs, and Howe never turned someone down who showed up in need of help at his service station.
On one occasion, his long-time friend Dale Tatro broke down on I-89, so Tatro walked down to Howe’s business and found Howe outside spraying a car with a hot oil undercoat. Howe was covered in a thin layer of oil. When Tatro told his friend about his predicament, Howe turned off the machine and climbed in the driver’s seat of his wrecker to fetch Tatro’s car.
“You could never, to my knowledge, you could never at work catch Orin in a bad mood,” Tatro said. “If he was doing something that he thought was important and you came in there and said, ‘My car is broken down,’ he’d lay his wrenches down and go.”
When it came to paying the bill, if a customer or a friend said they didn’t have enough money, Howe would say not to worry about it.
Or if a friend came in and said he couldn’t pay his taxes, Howe would reach into his shirt pocket, find the correct number of dollar bills and say, “Give that back to me when you can.” He would then walk away like it was no big deal.
“To me, that was Orin,” Tatro said. “He was just, as far as I’m concerned, the most accommodating guy I’ve ever met. It made no difference what Orin was doing, if he thought you needed something, he was there.”
That same accommodating man could also be very stubborn, and if he didn’t like an employee in his garage, he didn’t give him a second chance. He often fired employees first thing in the morning before the workers even had a chance to take off their coats.
Orin’s Muffler and Brake Center was Howe’s life. Howe graduated from Lebanon High School and learned to love cars while working at his brother-in-law’s gas station and garage in Hanover.
When he first bought the business on Route 12A, his children were still little tykes. In the early years of the garage, Howe would arrive for work at 6 a.m. and stay as long as there was business.
But despite his workload, he always managed to make it home for dinner. His daughter Suzanne Howe-Fraser remembers being 7 or 8 years old and calling her father at the garage and asking him to stop at Pizza Hut before coming home.
She would also ask her father to bring home soda from the vending machine at the garage, but Howe wouldn’t bring home just a six pack of soda, he’d bring home armfuls of cases.
“He was at work, but he had time for us,” Howe-Fraser said.
At the time, there was much competition among service stations on Route 12A, and Howe would often return to work after dinner to help pump gas or fetch a car with his wrecker.
“If a car quit out here on the road, we’d all run to see who could get there first,” Howe told the Valley News in 2004.
As the business grew, Howe hired a few good employees that treated the garage as their own and he trusted them to run the place so Howe could take a few days off. The family made time to travel to Disney World, Maine and Hershey, Penn.
His son Randy Howe was also the weatherman in his fifth grade school play, and Howe made sure to find a seat in the front row.
When Tatro and Howe’s two children spoke of Howe and shared stories, they laughed from their guts. For instance, Howe loved animals and his family had two oxen growing up. When he grew older, he kept trout, rabbits, chickens and emus at his West Lebanon home.
One day, Howe went to feed his two emus, but accidentally left the fence gate open. When he turned around, the emus were gone and he could see them trotting down Route 12A.
“I can just imagine being at the stoplight when those things came through,” his son Randy Howe said. Nobody ever called Howe to let him know that they found his emus, and they were never seen again.
“Those emus, I’ll never forget them,” Tatro said laughing.
Howe was a stubborn man who always assumed that he was right and everyone else was wrong. A personality like that lends itself to many absurd stories, and at times could draw rifts in his relationships.
For instance, Howe and a buddy were driving to Plainfield one afternoon when they passed a Chevrolet. One of them guessed that it was a 1955 Chevy, while the other one guessed it was 1956.
Howe became so convinced that he was right, that he made the duo turn around and chase the Chevy. When they caught up to the car, it turned out that Howe was wrong. Howe was so frustrated that he didn’t talk to his friend for two days.
“Orin was funny,” Tatro said. “He could do things that if anybody else did it, it would make you so mad you couldn’t stand it. But Orin was funny.”
When Howe’s son was in college and his daughter was in high school, he built a large house on a 40-acre plot of land in Plainfield. The structure had a three-car garage, two fireplaces, a hot tub and a finished basement. It was much too large for him, his wife and two children, but it was beautiful and had a 180-degree view of Mt. Ascutney and the Connecticut River.
But when his tax bill came in, he saw a line for a “view tax.” Howe had never heard of such a thing and was furious that the town was charging him to look out his window. So Howe recorded every day it was foggy, and when it was time to pay his taxes, he went to town hall and asked for a refund for each of the foggy days.
And when it came to having a meal, Howe was going to pay and his friends knew better than to argue with him. Tatro would always offer to pay for lunch, and Howe would say, “Nope, I have money I haven’t spent yet.” He was so persistent about paying for meals that he would go through the drive-thru just so Tatro didn’t have a chance to pay.
And almost every Saturday morning, he had breakfast with a group of friends at the Polka Dot diner in White River Junction, and he always paid.
Howe’s willingness to pay for meals and help people out might have come from his upbringing. He was the youngest of five children in a Lebanon family, and they were poor. All of Howe’s clothes were hand-me-downs, and he was the only child in his family to be born in a hospital. When he was delivered at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in 1947, it only cost his family $35.
Tatro said he thinks Howe was so willing to pay for other people’s dinners or fix their cars because when he was growing up, he didn’t have anyone that offered to pay for his dinner.
“I think that was one of the things he was real proud of at the end because it made him happy to be able to do something for someone else,” Tatro said.
Howe also loved his 1984 El Camino that had about 500,000 miles on it, and he loved racing. He won numerous trophies at speedways in Canaan, Bradford and West Lebanon, and he passed that love onto his son Randy, who has won 13 track championships at the Canaan Speedway.
Actually, he passed a lot of himself onto Randy, who now owns a car wash and garage of his own in White River Junction. Randy Howe can also remember sitting on his dad’s knee and driving his father’s car at 4 years old.
“His thing was going fast,” Howe-Fraser said. “When the speed limit on the interstate was 55, we were still going 75 or 80 to get somewhere.”
As Howe grew older, he felt that he had the right people working in his service station and he felt comfortable enough to leave others in charge of his business while he spent winters in Florida.
But in 2004, Howe made a decision he couldn’t reverse. One day, a Massachusetts developer approached Howe and asked if he’d like to sell his business.
In a split second — Howe didn’t even consult with a lawyer —he and his wife Linda signed the papers. They received $1.5 million for the property.
Howe moved out of the property that he had made his own for 30 years and continued to spend summers in the Upper Valley and winters in Florida. But he always regretted selling his service station.
“I made the mistake; I signed the papers,” Howe told the Valley News in 2004. “I tried to get out of it, but they said no.”
His daughter, Howe-Fraser, said that Howe’s split second decision to sell the property was typical of him. When he made up his mind, that was it.
Part of the reason Howe sold the property was because he thought he’d lose it anyway when Route 12A expanded. Howe had already heard plans that the state wanted to expand Route 12A into eight lanes and that a tunnel was supposed to be built in the Kmart Plaza.
But now that the roadwork was complete this past summer, Howe-Fraser said she can look at the property and see that Howe could have kept the garage, the gas pumps, everything.
Despite the $1.5 million he gained from selling his business, he was still as stingy as ever. Howe would spoil his children and grandchildren with gifts, but he never splurged on himself. His daughter said he invested the $1.5 million and then lived off the interest.
“If anything, it made him cheaper,” Howe-Fraser said. “He lived like he didn’t have two dimes to his name. He never splurged on anything extravagant for himself. He was always a saver.”
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223.