If you were a friend of Harlan Howard, you heard him use the term “juvenile” a lot. Everybody was a juvenile to Harlan. It wasn’t derogatory, in fact, it was a term of endearment. Truth be told, Harlan had a great memory. His stellar memory was for songs, mainly his own; but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember people’s names. It always bugged him that he couldn’t remember names so he’d fondly call you hoss or baby at a formal event, but his favorite term was “juvenile.” Harlan was usually the elder songwriter of the collective gang of songwriters who would gather when he was out conducting research and development which was code for trolling for titles.
These two photos are of “juvenile,” Harlan Howard. He was seven years old in these photos. They are the youngest photos of Harlan that I know of. There may be more photos of Harlan that I’m not privy to, but I dare say, few, if any exist. Here is the story behind the photographs and how they came into my possession.
Harlan and I met in 1987. While dating, Harlan told me stories of his childhood. He was matter of fact in their telling. It wasn’t a sad story to Harlan, just the way it was. The stories were sketchy at best. That sketchiness prompted me to want to fill in the gaps. Harlan mentioned that he never saw his father after the age of four. Harlan’s recollection was that a big black car drove up to the house he was living in and asked if he wanted to go for a ride. Harlan had never been in a car, that he remembered, so he eagerly agreed to the offer. After some time, Harlan mentioned that he needed to be getting home as his father would be home soon and perhaps looking for him. The driver menacingly said, you will never see your father again, and dropped him off at the state run orphanage. For a bit of background here, the year was 1930-31. The depression was in full bloom. Lots of folks couldn’t raise their children, Harlan’s parents were no exception. They simply didn’t have the means to feed and clothe them especially when Ralph Howard could not be trusted to go to work much less come home with any earnings. There were a lot of state-kids in the orphanage in those days.
While regaling the stories of his childhood, Harlan gave me permission to contact the state agencies to see if I could find records pertaining to him and his two brothers, Wallace and Milton. The first agency I contacted basically wished me luck on finding records from 1927. The women on the other end of the phone line, mentioned a fire at the agency, poor record keeping in 1920’s-30’s, warehouses that had flooded. I got off the phone feeling dejected. I called at 10AM central time and by 2PM she phoned back saying she had found a Howard file that contained over 200 pages documenting the early years of Harlan and his siblings Wallace and Milton. She asked me to write a letter telling what information I hoped to glean from the file. I sent her a letter saying since I didn’t know what was in it, I wanted the entire file.
Luckily, I was scheduled to go to Detroit to visit my dearest friend from grade school who had recently married and moved to Detroit. Upon hugging her neck, I said we have to go on a mission to downtown Detroit. She cocked her head and looked at me, and I wondered, is that a look of concern? We ventured out to the inner city of Detroit. It was depressing. I saw boarded up homes, burned out businesses, empty store-fronts, folks gathering in the streets and literally no industry to speak of. We arrived at our destination and walked the green hallway of a building that had seen better days. The lady whom I first spoke to greeted us and took us into the small office that served as the conference room. She asked again what I hope to ascertain from the file. I said I had no clue what was in the file, and if she’d give me a moment to look at it; I might be able to answer her question.
The first thing that fell out of the file was a small yellowed packet that contained two negatives. I put the negatives in my pocket and scanned the file. After about 30 minutes, she came back. I boldly told her how appreciative I was that she was serving the less fortunate children in Detroit and that my husband happened to be one of “those” kids during the Depression. I also stated that I was willing to make a donation in Harlan Howard’s name if she would make a copy of the entire folder for me. She agreed to my bargain and upped the ante by asking for an additional five cents per page. Score, I thought! The check was written and I left with the file.
Once home, I mentioned to Harlan that I had the entire file from the agency. The next morning over a pot of coffee we read the file. I’d read a page then pass it his way. To say it was an amazing experience is an understatement. Reading 200 pages of daily or weekly visits from social workers from the 20’s and 30’s felt a bit like reading someone’s diary. It just so happened this diary was all about my husband, Harlan Howard. I liken the experience to that of an archeologist on a big dig. It was every emotional as you can imagine. We laughed, we wept, we wrung our hands, we wiped our brows, we read and reread paragraphs aloud to fully digest them. We’d inhale at the beginning of a new page then exhale, that long, slow, steady release of breath at the end of the page. Whew! It felt like we were blowing the dust off of bones we’d just unearthed. I worried about the effect this new knowledge might have on Harlan. I kept saying to myself, Melanie, you’re lucky. You have one set of parents that have stayed happily married for over 50 years. I felt like I had won the childhood lottery compared to Harlan’s childhood story.
These photos of Harlan were taken at the orphanage and put in the newspaper in Detroit. According to the file, Harlan’s father, Ralph Howard was a hopeless alcoholic and unfit as a parent. The article was inquiring if anyone recognized young Harlan and knew the whereabouts of his mother, Evelyn Howard. It wasn’t long before a Methodist minister notified the authorities that he knew Evelyn Howard and according to him, she was “living in sin.” Scandalous for the times, but possibly a happy ending? The social workers called on Evelyn and told her she had a son living in the orphanage and she needed to claim him. On Harlan’s eighth birthday, September 8, 1935, Evelyn arrived at the orphanage to collect young Harlan. Harlan’s response was elation, he pumped his fist in the air and exclaimed that he was no longer a state-kid that he had a Mother. Evelyn took Harlan home.
To be continued.