by Wanda Urbanska
The call came from Ann Vaughn, my dear friend in Mount Airy, where I had lived for decades before moving to Raleigh in 2010. At this stage in my upper 50s, with one divorce and a boatload of misery under my bridge, starting over was all about my career. The few times romance had flickered into my consciousness, I banished it quickly, figuring love was not in the cards. Not for me. Not ever.
Ann had a different idea.
“Howell is brilliant, handsome, and single,” she started in. “And you knew his mother…”
On that point, she had me. Pat Gwyn Woltz was an icon in Mount Airy. With her own five children grown and gone, she took in strays. Gifted, folksy, kind, and wise, Pat was a staunch traditionalist who played by the rules. I’ll never forget the time she tromped up the staircase to my publishing office on Main Street to purchase ten copies of my book, Christmas on Jane Street, but then refused to write the check until I added in sales tax. Then, there was the backstory of her own father, Thomas Lenoir Gwyn, a businessman and state legislator from Waynesville, who had lost almost everything in the 1929 crash, but rather than taking the easy out of declaring bankruptcy, had labored for years to pay every creditor in full.
When Howell emailed in September inviting me to lunch – he was seeking advice about a book he’d self-published – he wrote: “Mother loved you like a daughter. Let me know when you’re free. I can come on short notice.”
As president of a newly established educational foundation promoting the legacy of the late Jan Karski, my plate was full to brimming. Between travel to New York, Chicago, and Poland to commemorate the centennial of the birth of this great Catholic hero of the Polish Underground – called “One Man Who Tried to Stop the Holocaust” – I simply didn’t have the time to take on any new projects…or people. Besides, Howell had a history – the kind women don’t want to touch when they’re playing it safe.
Though we’d never met, I well remembered that back in April of 2006, Howell had been arrested on an allegation of some sort of white-collar conspiracy. It had been a huge, jaw-dropping scandal in Mount Airy when it hit, involving arguably the town’s most prominent family. No one could understand what Howell was supposed to have done, yet we all assumed he was guilty. Given my affection for Pat – who had passed away in 2011 not long after I’d left town – how could I refuse to meet her middle child in his hour of need?
I set the date at NOFO in Five Points a month out.
The minute I saw him, dressed in a coat and tie for a proper lunch, standing like a gentleman to pull out my chair, I was entranced. Howell was every bit as handsome as Ann recommended, but his blue eyes – his mother’s – told another story. I saw suffering in those eyes, but I also saw passion.
Over that first lunch, we swapped stories about his life behind bars and my window on Main Street in the small town he couldn’t wait to escape. Incredibly, Howell told me, he had spent seven years in various jails and lockups across America though he was never tried or convicted in or by any court of jurisdiction. A man of wealth, privilege, and education – a white man in glasses – Howell was an oddity in the prison system. He made his way in “the pokey” by scavenging the grounds for dandelion greens, trading junk food for oranges, and offering up his services as a jailhouse lawyer.
My trust in him was instinctual and immediate, no small feat for a journalist schooled in skepticism. Over the next few days, reading his book, Justice Denied, I became possessed by his story, astonished by the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of prison guards, prosecutors, and, incredibly, his own well-paid lawyers. I made notes about how the narrative could be improved in a new mainstream edition.
During our next lunch, he told me how his mother had talked about me incessantly during her prison visits and how each year she gave him yet another copy of Christmas on Jane Street, which he promptly donated to the prison library.
“Did you ever read it?” I asked.
“Sometimes I wish I could lie,” he said, embarrassed. “No, I never did. Now I wish I had.”
His mother had also filled him in on my crowning achievement in his hometown: producing and hosting America’s first television series advocating sustainable living, Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska. Though the series never overtook The Andy Griffith Show in the ratings, it broke new ground in challenging viewers to live better on less and aired for four seasons on PBS stations around America. (You can watch it on hulu.com.) The shows drew heavily on Mount Airy’s colorful cast of characters, including Howell’s mom. Pat Gwyn Woltz once appeared on a recurring segment, The Thing That Refused to Die, showcasing items that people used beyond the date of planned obsolescence, wearing a skirt and sweater she’d purchased in 1960 and still wore. Incredibly, they fit. “I’ve never gone on a diet in my life,” she confessed. “If my clothes get tight, I just eat less till they’re comfortable.”
Comfortable is how Howell and I began to feel quickly in each other’s company, as if we’d known each other for years. In a sense, we had. He knew his mother had signed off on me, and I knew from whence he came. Those NOFO lunches led to dinner and, before long, breakfast.
Without understanding how it happened, without even wanting to, I found myself falling in love with a man who was not unlike the great Polish hero whose legacy I’d been promoting. I’d crisscrossed America and Canada, speaking to educators and school kids about Jan Karski and the lessons he offers us today. In 2012, I met and spoke with President Obama during the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony when he conferred a posthumous medal on Karski for his world-class heroism.
When speaking about Karski, I often said: “When faced with evil, corruption, and injustice in your midst, speak truth to power, as he did.”
In taking up with Howell – the man and his mission – I was given just this chance. How could I not fall for this real-life hero? Could it be at age 58 – when many people are folding up shop, professional and romantic – that I’d finally stumbled onto the love of my life?
Within days of dating, we were inseparable. On Christmas Day, he proposed.
Looking at the oversized photo of his mother and me, taken on that day in 2004 when we filmed Simple Living at the Woltzes’ in Mount Airy, now on prominent display in my Raleigh home, we can’t help but think that his late mother – who passed away before Howell’s release or a habeas corpus petition was filed by a federal judge to clear his name – had a hand in our romance. Was it just possible – after all the anguish and heartbreak we’d both experienced in broken marriages and decades of living – that the angel who played matchmaker was not my friend Ann Vaughn, but rather Howell’s dearly departed mother? Who knows? But, in my case, the drawbridge had opened. Romance – and a new start in life – was very much in the cards.