Remembering Howard Sanburg

howard 3A celebration of a person’s life is an opportunity to share stories as well as tears, to convey how one person affected your life, to let other people in on the back-story of a loved one through words and photographs.

Howard Sanburg died on December 26th, 2014. The celebration of his life was on March 8th, 2015. Daughter Jan Sanburg and former islander Marlyn Hoffman offered their insight into Howard at the event. For those who were not there, here is what they said.


Jan Sanburg’s An Island called Home

We ended up in Seattle, Washington, on our journey through a “messy” divorce and a family divided. Dad and I in Washington and my Mom and brother somewhere else – I did not know where they were. We had left the family’s high mountain ranch of Colorado and all that we ever knew and loved. We spent some months near Shiprock, New Mexico, surrounded by desert beauty and the hopeless poverty of Navajo reservations. My father tried his hand at oil painting while I tried mine at catching horned toads and lizards. My Aunt, my father’s sister, and her family were moving from there to Seattle so we went with them. Having lived a life in the Southwest where every drop of water was gold, my Dad must have felt that the Northwest was a promised land. The Puget Sound became his new wide open range. A sailboat replaced his horse; a bow line instead of a lariat.

Soon we sailed off, living on a 21-foot sloop, into the Canadian islands off of British Columbia. We saw killer whales (!) and harbor seals. I loved the slap, slap, slap sound of the seagull’s webbed feet on the deck of the boat and their laughing calls. We sailed from Canada to Port Angeles at night, and then to sleepy little places like Deer Harbor, and Friday Harbor, in the San Juan Islands. I spent hours with my belly on the dock catching jellyfish, poking at sea plume worms to see them dart back into their tubes. Listening to the ting, ting, ting of halyards on the mast from our boat tied nearby – rocking back and forth with the waves and tide. I explored the rocks under an old abandoned cannery. Little crabs, and sea stars, and those clever little hermit crabs who I thought were snails ‘till they scurried away in tidal pools. These were endless summer days of childhood and discovery; and trying to fill my mind with anything other than the loneliness and loss of my brother.


Finding Home on a Little Island

One day we moored at a small dock on Shaw Island. Summer was ending and I needed to go back to school. There was a small house for rent near the only little store. There was a little school. The lady at the post office told my Dad that some folks on the island had cattle and maybe needed a hand. Dad knew a little about cattle; and a lot about hard work. So we stayed there for a while. On this island we made a few friends — tried to fit in – and began to belong. Dad worked cattle with Don Yansen, and the Ellis Brothers, Ted Copper, and Don Clark. I spent many days tagging along with him from one odd job to another.

By the age of 10 I had become his A-number 1 tool-fetcher. I knew the difference between a wrench and channel locks. I knew that if he was using a half-inch drive I’d better not come back with a quarter-inch drive socket. When Dad didn’t need my “help,” the hours were spent exploring the forest. Looking closely at little ants in deep beds of moss and trying to walk Indian Quiet through the salal and cedar duff. Or I’d sit in the ‘67 Chevy pick-up and read book after book. I would go places with Farley Mowat, read the Journals of Lewis and Clark, and laugh at the antics of a mouse with a toy motorcycle. I read the writings of Cummings, Keats, Yeats, and Browning, and the other Browning. I memorized “Flanders Fields” and the Gettysburg Address. I learned to read music and play the piano on keys drawn on a piece of paper.

Dad loved the natural world and how all things are connected. He taught me about the seasons, the weather, the names of stars and constellations. I learned the smell just before it rains. He showed me the beauty in a sunset, a mountain, a tulip; and he captured that beauty with his camera. Dad taught me how to garden. Showed me how to hill potatoes with a spade and told me stories about growing up during the depression. He helped me hoe between the rows, showed how to poke a hole and plant a squash seed; and to plant another one “for the crows”. I learned the names of weeds, and bugs, and grubs, and birds. Then one day – the inevitable happened. Over by Upright Head of Lopez Island my Dad caught a salmon – trolling from the sailboat. He was hooked. I knew then, by the smile on his face – brighter than the sun, that we were never going back to Colorado, and that this had become our new home. So, Dad became a commercial fisherman and reef-netted with a crew off the island’s shore in an ancient Indian way. He taught me how to gut a fish; how to eat salmon; barbequed for dinner, fried for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch.


Some Lessons Learned from Dad

Dad taught me all the finer things a young woman needs to know: how to drive a tractor and a stick shift. The difference between 4-on-the-floor and 3-on-the-tree. How to ease out a clutch and stomp on the brake. How to back up with a trailer, and how to drive in the snow – and how to get unstuck. I learned not to judge people by their age, or gender, or color, or the car they drove, or the size of their wallet. I learned to look for the character in a person. I saw that a handshake was a contract. Dad instructed me on how to swing an axe, and stack a proper cord of wood. How to shovel gravel; and how to shovel gravel left-handed to give myself a “break”. I learned how to make hay, and chop ice on the stock tank, how to figure if a critter needed less hay or more oats, how to string a quarter of a mile of fence and how to hang a gate. On this tiny island, only a few acres bigger than our family’s ranch, I became the best son my father ever raised.

When I was 11, Dad and a two-year-old bay mare named Promise began to teach me how to train a young horse. Together they tried to show me to hold the reins, not left and right, but with hands of kindness and patience — that some things can’t be hurried. That mare and my father taught me that a saddle can’t hold an ego or arrogance; that there is only room for two back pockets and a sense of humor. These were the lessons I was to practice for the next two decades; in the saddle, in a buggy, on a racetrack – in life. I’m still trying to get the hang of it.

With a twinkle in his eye Dad would tell folks that he taught me “everything he knew and I still didn’t know anything”. But, I was always one of those people who learned best when shown things rather than being told how to do them. In this way I learned a lot from just watching my Dad, and kept a small scratchpad in my mind of those things. Here are some of my notes: Almost anything can be cooked in a frying pan. “Temporary” can be a very long time. Keep the butter where the cat can’t get to it. If you forget your hatchet it IS possible to cut down a Christmas tree with a rock. You’re never too broke, or busy, to lend someone a hand. Around horses it is best not to swat at flies with your cowboy hat. A smile costs nothing. If you want an Angel Food cake bad enough you can beat egg whites stiff with a fork, but it’s ‘gonna take a while. If you don’t know where you are going, don’t try and get there at night in a sailboat. If the cat licks the butter, you probably want to cut that part off. And finally: If you have a bad day ALWAYS go to bed knowing that tomorrow will be a better day that some days are just better than others.
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Marlyn Hoffman Remembers

When Jan asked me to share some remembrances of Howard’s participation as a member of the Shaw Island Fellowship, it was easy to recall his faithful service given over many years. Before the current heating system was installed he would come early and build a fire so that we would be warm and comfortable. Always the chairs would be placed and the hymnals distributed. Hot coffee was prepared and the cream, sugar and cups readied for use. And when the service ended he would immediately begin putting the chairs and hymnals away with the help of others. He also served in the gathering of the offering and banking chores for a time. Howard took these tasks seriously and rarely missed performing them.

He found joy and satisfaction in doing his part. Only illness or an occasional vacation required back-up help. When someone assists continuously with tasks such as these over a long period of time, it is easy to take for granted it will continue on and on. And it did for many, many years. When one considers there was no remuneration of any kind for this except the gratitude of a handful of people every Sunday, Howard’s faithfulness is all the more exceptional. His generous gift of time and service will always be remembered with appreciation by Shaw Fellowship and he is missed. I was told that the first Sunday after he could no longer help, his absence was dramatically felt … there was no coffee waiting to be served and no one knew how to make it.


An Ordinary Man with the Gift of Giving, Humility and Grace

Howard’s spirit of giving went beyond that offered on Sunday morning. Recently, at a women’s study group held at my church, the lesson focused on the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount given in Scripture, specifically that week on being salt and light in the spheres of life in which we live. As I thought about my memories of Howard over the years and considered how he had influenced island living, I felt there was a connection.

Salt is most thought of as a seasoning. The flavor of food would be rather bland and tasteless without the enhancement of salt as part of its preparation. Salt is also a preservative and a deterrent of bacteria and spoilage. And it is one of the most common things in daily use. Howard’s character personified all of these qualities. He was simply an ordinary man; not a great intellectual, not one of the social elite, not a shaker and a mover … just an ordinary man. He was himself and never pretended to be otherwise. What you saw and heard was genuine Howard. Yet behind the country apparel and underneath the Stetson hat existed a sensitive generous heart, a bounty of practical knowledge, a surprising sense of humor, all wrapped up in grace and humility so often the perfect seasoning needed at the time.


A Lesson in Calm in the Face of a Bull

We Hoffmans experienced this while he worked at Hoffman Mill for a spell. He was always prompt and willing to do whatever the job required. His work ethic was to help where needed and then some. His sense of humor and calm approach to unexpected crises counteracted Henry’s reactions, which were sometimes the opposite. He would bide his time, maybe chuckle a little and then casually throw in a suggestion or two that might fix the problem. (As an aside, some folks have a form of laughter that is unforgettable. I still hear in my mind Doris Oliver’s and it is the same for Howard’s). Often his “salt” was just the seasoning needed to save the day. One occasion I vividly remember happened early in the morning. It was not a mill incident but Howard befriended us at other times, too.

We had a young Guernsey heifer named Becky that we had acquired with the intention of having fresh milk eventually. For some reason our neighbors, the Ellis family, had a big white Charliroi bull visiting on their place and he proceeded to break through the old fencing during the night to visit Becky. Of course Henry suspected the worst. She had come in season and the bull was not about to let that go unnoticed. To say the least some very salty language turned the vicinity blue as he tried to shoo the bull on home. It wouldn’t budge, which only made the atmosphere more stormy.

Howard had an uncanny way of popping in on occasion but not usually in the early morning. Maybe he decided to see if work was available that day. Anyway he must have heard all the commotion because he came walking up the road to the barn area and asked, “What’s going on?” Henry told him in no uncertain terms that our sweet Becky had been bred by the bull. She was too young, it could kill her, and to add insult to injury, the bull refused to budge and just snorted at him when he tried to chase it.

Howard quietly listened and took the situation in, suppressed his mirth with a little chuckle, opened the gate, spread his arms out a bit and gently walked behind the animal and urged it to head home. Typically the bull sauntered a bit than began to trot more swiftly across the field to the Ellis property and finally disappeared through the fence and into the woods. A rather chagrined Henry shook his head and relearned the lesson that sometimes too much salty language and hysterics are worthless in solving problems. A shot from the vet spared our heifer early motherhood and the bull was never seen again.
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A ‘Character’ who Listened, Loved

One other remembrance about that time was that Hoffman mill was no Northwest Marine Technology. We were never able to pay top wages with benefits, no comfortable working conditions, no snacks although sometimes an invitation to lunch occurred, and no special-occasion parties. It was hard work outdoors with machinery that had its idiosyncrasies and a boss who had more dreams than business expertise. To top that off, payday was inconsistent. Howard never once complained, threatened or embarrassed Henry about the job. If he had any negative feelings they never made the island grapevine. We appreciated his giving spirit that understood the circumstances and his willingness to work and wait for the time when the income was available. Henry and Howard’s friendship endured, preserved by mutual respect and appreciation of what was good and worth preserving.

It has been said that Shaw has had its fair share of “characters” over its history, those that have brought color and light to living on this island. Howard most certainly qualifies to be in that group. In his quiet way he took the initiative to be a neighbor that listened and took opportunities to serve. I doubt that when asked, he almost never declined to participate in the project no matter what it was. Many a time he helped put in hay for others after his work day ended or he had just finished his own haying. My kids remember he always said when the last bale was loaded, “That’s the one I’ve been looking for.”

His light shined in other ways: His care of animals, his love of his children, grandkids, mother and siblings whether they were near or far. I never heard a negative comment about any of them even when they blew it, nor did I ever hear him use foul language or get involved in divisive squabbles. I saw his patience and perseverance as he monitored the production of cutters year after year at NMT … and on it goes. Howard’s contributions as a neighbor and friend did brighten our lives and how blessed we were for his sharing them. I’m sure at 90th birthday party all who attended let him know that.

As for Shaw Fellowship, I do not know what prompted Howard to begin attending years ago. It may have been by invitation or an unspoken personal need or a call within his spirit that he was needed. Jan believes he came in part just because he wanted be helpful, to contribute what he could for people he liked to be with. It matters not why but he did come. If attendance records were kept, Howard was among the top for consistency. He never expressed what he believed or disagreed with, but he joined in the times of worship, he listened to the teaching and supported the group with loyalty, sincerity and humility. Most of all he practiced in his quiet, unassuming way, grace, mercy and peace within his family and among his island friends and neighbors. He was salt and light in his world here on Shaw Island. Howard and I never had theological discussions but when I visited him at his bedside in the hospital he told me he believed his life was in the hands of God. It’s a good place to be, especially at life’s end.