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Longtime hunter education teacher remembered fondly

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Daily Inter Lake | October 13, 2021 12:00 AM

Leonard Howke was a family man of many talents who also knew the value of hard work and its benefits.

But ultimately he’ll be remembered for his love of Northwest Montana’s wild places and sharing his passion for outdoors-related pursuits with the youth of the region.

Howke, 79, a Whitefish native and lifelong resident, died Oct. 2 at his son Duane’s home in Kalispell. Leonard and his wife, Billie Jean, had moved in with his son and his wife after they tragically lost their home to a fire on Sept. 9.

“It was a real gut punch to us,” Duane told the Daily Inter Lake during a phone interview Tuesday. “I know I am the man I am today because of him. He was truly my best friend. Even if I was out of town for work, we’d talk every day.

“He raised me and my son and he took care of his family. If the world had more people like my father in it, there wouldn’t be so many problems.”

Leonard cared for his wife, who uses a wheelchair, and helped his grandson develop a career working with explosives.

“He had a great time taking my son to the school in Missouri for it and then we learned that his dad, my grandfather, worked with explosives while blowing up stumps so the railroad could be built here.”

Howke was a longtime volunteer with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He taught hunter education for more than 50 years and was a leader in the “Hooked on Fishing” program. Howke also worked at big-game check stations for 30 years. He also volunteered for many FWP projects studying the wildlife of the region.

Duane said trying to narrow down his favorite memories of time spent with his dad weren’t easy.

“He’d take me backpacking when I was pretty little. When I’d get tired, he would strap me to a pack frame, strap it to his pack and carry me until he got tired. Then I’d get down and hike some more,” Duane said.

Duane also recalled the memories shared by others of his dad’s outdoors adventures when he was younger.

“They’d leave Friday after school, hike as far as they could get by dark, camp, then hike into a lake to fish before returning late Sunday to get back to school on Monday.

“But they didn’t always make it to school,” Duane said with a laugh.

Duane said they hiked the length of Glacier National Park and been to every lake in the Jewel Basin.

“We covered thousands of miles here while hiking, hunting and fishing. You really couldn’t beat it,” Duane said. “He took me everywhere.”

Leonard Howke also loved to snowmobile, according to Duane.

“He’d fix other people’s snowmobiles and it wasn’t unusual to have 20 of them in the yard,” Duane said. “He’d race snowmobiles at West Yellowstone and if someone needed help there with their machine, he’d jump in to help them, too.”

HOWKE WORKED as a heavy equipment operator and he helped build the last potline at the aluminum plant in Columbia Falls.

But an accident while cutting firewood with Duane left Leonard unable to continue his work.

In a 2015 Inter Lake story, Howke recalled how his life changed.

“September 26, 1981. That’s when my life changed,” he said. “It was on the weekend, I was with my wife and son picking mushrooms. I saw a dead tree and decided to go cut it to get some firewood, and then the top fell down on me.”

Injuries caused by the massive log resulted in four surgeries, two metal rods in his back and seven fused vertebrae before he was out of the hospital.

“They didn’t think I’d ever walk again, but being bull-headed like I am, I guess I fooled ‘em,” he said then.

Howke credited Hunters Education with helping him stay active after the accident. It cost him his job as an equipment operator with the former Anaconda Aluminum Company.

“The classes helped to keep my mind off of it, along with fishing,” Howke said with a smile. “When I got hurt that gave me more incentive to keep going. I didn’t want to give up, and that was something I’d really look forward to.”

KALISPELL RESIDENTS John Cloniger and Jan Thon became acquainted with Leonard through the “Hooked on Fishing” program.

“John was such a gentle soul,” Sloniger said. “The kids just loved him. He was so dedicated to Hunter Ed, at the check stations and for “Hooked on Fishing” he couldn’t do enough.

“I’m sad he passed away, but he was a very hard worker and a very positive person.”

Sloniger also talked about Leonard’s involvement with the “Fishing without Barriers” program and other endeavors.

“His work in it and at schools in Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Olney-Bissell were instrumental in thousands of kids learning how to fish,” Sloniger said. “His laugh and smile were genuine, he enjoyed life and work and he’ll be missed.”

Jim Vashro, the longtime Montana FWP Region 1 fisheries biologist, haS fond recollections.

“Leonard was quiet, unassuming, always smiling, always ready to help. Not many people knew of Leonard but he touched thousands of lives, particularly young anglers and hunters. Leonard left a legacy few of us can match, one we should all be grateful for,” Vashro said.

Vashro also noted Howke’s 56 years of teaching Hunter Education was the third longest tenure in Montana.

“Leonard once told me one of his Hunter Ed graduates killed his first deer near Libby and insisted his Dad drive home via the Olney check station so Leonard could check it,” Vashro said. “Leonard said the dad acted ‘kinda grumpy’ but you could tell he was proud. Then Leonard smiled and said “I taught the dad Hunter Ed, too.”

While services are not planned for this year, Duane said they would occur next spring.

He and other family members will also complete one last wish of Leonard’s when the weather permits it.

“He wants his ashes spread over the headwaters of the North, Middle and South forks of the Flathead River,” Duane said. “Getting to the North Fork will be easy because we can drive to it, and FWP is going to help us fly into the Middle Fork at Schafer Meadows.”

The South Fork will be their most challenging and rewarding trip, though.

“Our cousin, Chuck Allen, has horses and we’ll take one last trip with the old man into Big Salmon Lake to complete his wish.”

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.