Rick Howell transformed the York campus

To all who worked with him, Rick Howell was a "gentleman" – a gentle man, noble, wise, kind, level-headed, even-handed, one class act.

These are some of the adjectives colleagues at York have chosen to describe the 57-year-old facilities planning & renovations director whose sudden death Friday will create a huge void at the University. His funeral will be held tomorrow at 11am in St. Cuthbert Church, 1399 Bayview Ave.

Howell (left) joined York as a planner in 1998 after 20 years running his own interior design business. He moved quickly up the ranks. Within two years, he was promoted to manager of renovations planning and by 2003, he was named director of facilities planning. In the past four years, he and his team have overseen the renovations of many existing buildings and the construction of many new buildings. They were also responsible for interior design and furnishings, and for the change in signage on campus.

"Rick really did have a material impact on the quality of space on this campus," said Gary Brewer, vice-president finance & administration. "He took old, tired space in existing buildings like Ross, the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building, and the West Office Building and transformed them into nice places to work.

"He had a huge transformative effect," said Brewer. "That is part of the legacy he leaves for us."

But it was his professional style that really made an impact on Brewer – and everyone else who worked with him. "What always impressed me was the way Rick went about doing his job," said Brewer. "Despite all the challenges, pressures and competing demands, he went about trying to please everybody in a pleasant, positive and constructive way."

Steve Dranitsaris, senior executive officer, Vice-President Finance & Administration, reckons Howell and his staff oversaw the rejuvenation of up to three-quarters of a million square feet in existing buildings over the past five years. "Rick’s fingerprints are all over this University and will be for some time," he said. "It was such a huge amount of work and he always did it with such cheerfulness, pleasantness and dignity."

"His impact on the University has been significant," said Dranitsaris. "Not only have we lost a colleague, we’ve got a huge void to fill."

"Rick was a really class act," said Dranitsaris, who communicated frequently with Howell about the progress of York’s building projects. "He was a pleasure to work with always. He made work fun. Not only was he a class act, he was a terrific problem solver," continued Dranitsaris. "He had a really creative mind and could see all possibilities. He was also a great administrator and had a flair and an ability to write reports and project descriptions."

Despite a high-pressure, multi-layered job, Howell had "an easy-going style" and never got angry. "He had excellent judgment, and was a very, very wise person with a dry sense of humour. He was very classy. He was a gentleman."

Rick Howell (standing third from left) with his team at Facilities Planning & Renovations

Howell’s three managers thought so, too.

Peter Thompson, planning manager, said Howell was "like the mom and dad of the Planning & Renovations Department. He was concerned about everyone. He was concerned about the work we did and about us as individuals. He watched out for us."

Thompson said his boss was generous and "always, always wanted to find a way to move things forward. He was extremely professional." No matter what the tensions or complaints, "Rick always took the high road." And "no matter what the mistake or difficult situation, he never had a harsh word for anyone. He was a gentleman and a noble person."

Ron Ogata, renovations manager, said Howell "was a great boss to have." He was level-headed. "Even when he said he was mad, he didn’t look mad." He was always awed by Howell’s capacity to remember details.

Rebecca Muyal, manager of planning services, said she knew Howell before he came to York through the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO). Both continued their affiliation through ARIDO, and Howell worked hard as a volunteer to raise the status of the profession.

As one of Howell’s three managers, Muyal appreciated his support, understanding and calm nature. "He was very kind and a very good person. We’re really going to miss him."

Edwina Scott, administrative coordinator in Facilities Planning & Renovations, echoed Muyal’s sentiments. "He was very supportive. It didn’t matter how busy we were. We’re really going to miss him. He was a very kind, very good person."

Phillip Silver, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, worked closely with Howell during the building of the Accolade Project. "As one who had the joy of working with Rick on several projects in the past years, I observed how his personal dedication to York’s students, staff and faculty framed his efforts to achieve the most and the best for us. As a person, he was a gentleman and a gentle man. We’ve all lost a very good friend."

Howell leaves his wife Andrea, son Aaron and daughter Meagan, an undergraduate at Glendon.

Story by Martha Tancock, York communications officer.