“My life is one massive good fortune,” the 96-year-old World War II veteran told The Southern Cross.
Decorated for his bravery with the Distinguished Flying Cross for 31 missions as a Lancaster bomber pilot over Europe, Howard was awarded the French Legion of Honour in 2017 for his help in liberating France from the Germans. He has also been recognised for his service to the community with a Citizen of the Year Award in 2016 and an Order of Australia Medal in 2019.
Some would say that makes him a living legend, not that Howard has too much time to ponder over this status.
He’s too busy looking after more than 1000 native plants and trees on his former citrus property at Pyap, 6km out of Loxton on the River Murray.
Or he’s driving into town to help out at the local Catholic primary school, St Albert’s, where he volunteers in the classroom one morning a week and tends the flower garden every second afternoon (or every evening during a heat wave).
If it’s a Sunday, he’s off to Mass, which he hasn’t missed since converting to Catholicism 50 years ago, and he also goes to Mass on Tuesdays.
In between, there are visits to the hospital or the aged care home to sit with his closest mates, lunch at the community day centre and other social activities.
Of course that’s all before the coronavirus which has not only interfered with his regular routine but also resulted in a modified version of the Anzac Day Dawn Service where he has played a major role for the past 30 years.
Howard still turned up at 5.30am to hoist the flags half-mast at the Cross of Sacrifice and RSL, and then attended the Dawn Service, but this year there were only 10 people allowed in the official area and the ceremony from last year was played over loud speakers. And there was no getting together with old mates for breakfast at the RSL.
But adapting to change is nothing new for Howard: he owns an iPad, the latest iPhone, pays most of his bills electronically, types letters and his diary (which he’s kept for 60 years) on his computer and has a Fitbit to check that he’s done enough steps each day.
Asked if he was still driving, Howard laughed, saying “I was flying up until Christmas”, in reference to his decision to rekindle this passion when he retired from fruit block work.
“I’ve driven to Adelaide twice this year to see my daughters and grandchildren,” he added proudly.
“I look after myself, have done since my wife died 17 years ago.”
Howard fell in love with “an English air force girl”, Winnifred Nugent, who was one of 11 children in a staunch Catholic family in Newcastle-on-Tyne.
While they were married in a Catholic church in Northumberland two days after the war ended, Howard didn’t convert until 20 years later.
He was raised Anglican and like most children at the local school in Renmark, where he grew up, he went to Sunday School every week. While he turned to prayer at times during the war, he moved away from religion in his early twenties.
“It wasn’t until I met Win, she was such a good person and so was her family that I thought what a good faith the Catholic faith is, how good are these people in every respect,” he said. “But it took me a long time to convert.”
A commercial pilot for British Airways for four years after the war, Howard returned to the Riverland where he and Win started a new life running a soldier settlement block while raising two daughters. The family became very involved with the local Catholic school run by the Dominican Sisters.
“I had a truck and when I took fruit and veg to the East End markets twice a week I would go and see my daughters at Cabra and I’d take parcels to the convent for them,” he recalled. “I even took a piano once, and sometimes I’d drop off a box of tomatoes or some fruit.
“We were poor in those early days and the nuns were very good to us, they waived the fees sometimes and were so good to my girls at Cabra.”
Fr Arthur Hackett took Howard through his religious instruction and he hasn’t looked back since.
“Your faith keeps you going,” he said. “Win was a saint, she was so devoted, that’s how I eventually tuned into the idea of becoming Catholic – by her example. She would say the Rosary every night.”
Except for a double heart bypass 35 years ago, Howard said he had been blessed with good health.
Picking oranges every day up until 10 years ago helped him stay fit and now looking after his native plants keeps him active.
“If I haven’t done 7000 steps by the evening, I go for a walk around the block,” he said.