Howard Godecke, the birdman of Johnson Lane
December 15, 2006
Whoever penned the saying “an enigma wrapped in a conundrum,” could have been talking about my friend Howard Godecke, who died last week after a year-long illness.
He was at once brilliant, charming, funny, uplifting and inspiring, and yet his 83 years included its failures, too, both professional and personal, some of which (like most of us) could probably have been avoided. I know all this because I’ve been working on Howard’s oral history since April, and after every session, as I drove home to Jacks Valley from Carson Convalescent Center, his words echoed in my mind like some sort of prophesy.
I first saw Howard Godecke in a 1994 issue of Sunset Magazine around the time I’d started writing a weekly wildlife column, View from Jacks Valley, for The Record-Courier. He was photographed next to one of his Western bluebird trail birdhouses, and the article identified him as the founder of the Songbird Survival Project and the inventor of a new type of bird feeder he called a “seed sock.”
Since I always needed local bird experts for my column, I found his name in the phone book and went to meet him at the charming store he had in Genoa, right across the street from the Genoa Country Store. Inside, it smelled of freshly sawed wood and was full of anything to do with wild birds – feeders (the seed socks were genius), books, art, and the most amazing bird houses, made from the trunk of a tree, hollowed out and engineered perfectly for the Western bluebird, a very particular local nester.
“I’m here to see Howard Godecke,” I said to the woman behind the counter. I was a little nervous to meet this guy so famous he was in Sunset Magazine.
“Oh, yes, that’s him filling the feeders outside,” she said. I turned and saw this giant of a man putting up bright yellow tube feeders while lesser goldfinches and pine siskins fluttered around him. He looked like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, my kids’ favorite movie character that year.
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I went outside to meet him, and it was instant charm. Anyone who knew Howard knows what I’m talking about. We struck up an immediate friendship Ð we could speak the same ornithological language, after all Ð and since he was in his early 70s and I was in my early 40s, I mentally adopted him into my FFC (father figure collection).
Over the years, I would use any excuse to interview Howard. He was passionate and poetic about his early years growing up on the Milky Way Farm off Heybourne Road, the one with the three blue silos.
We did a story on Christmas in the 1930s at the ranch, where he described the wonder of driving home from the evening church service at Trinity Lutheran, after he and his three siblings, Clarence Jr., Elinor and Carolyn, performed in the traditional Christmas pageant. His dad, Clarence Sr., would carefully drive and slip-slide their big green Chevy through the fresh snow, Howard said, all four kids anxiously leaning over the back seat to get the first glimpse of the lights of the farmhouse at the dairy, where their mother, Esther, had presumably been decorating the tree and perhaps hosting a visit from Santa.
The images Howard painted verbally were no less detailed than a Norman Rockwell painting, and often I would have to prod him to get back to answering the question, so I could return to the newsroom and write the story for deadline.
“Howard, we have to put all this into a book someday,” I would say, and he’d laugh and continue waxing poetic, ignoring my pleas for brevity.
After I left the R-C and was writing for the Reno Gazette-Journal, I wanted to do a feature on Howard and his seed sock business, which had expanded across the U.S. at the time. It was now Seedsox … local man goes big time.
The interview was scheduled for Sept. 12, 2001. As the horrifying events of Sept. 11 unfolded, I called Howard and asked him if he wanted to postpone the interview (surely we couldn’t talk about birds at a time like this). We decided to go ahead and give it a try, if only to commiserate about what had happened, and in that interview, as always, I took notes (for the book, of course), and ended up writing my most memorable Howard story.
In it, he compared Sept. 11, 2001, to Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked and “everything changed.” His detailed memory of things like the fog in San Francisco that Sunday morning in December when he was there as an 18-year-old, only months out of Douglas County High School, and his philosophical take on the two events, well, it was a tonic for that awful time.
“My whole life is based on trying to do old things in new, innovative ways,” he said then, searching for something he could invent to fix what had happened, something he’d done since childhood.
I did many ensuing feature stories on the history and architecture of Carson Valley and Lake Tahoe; the agriculture, the wildlife – all favorite subjects to write about Ð and guess who was a perfect, knowledgeable reference for all of those subjects? At one point, a RGJ editor finally said to me “Try to use someone besides Howard Godecke this time.”
But even last year, when Carson Magazine wanted me to do a cover feature on agriculture, past, present and future, I used Howard for part of the story, and he was, as always, perfect – beaming in his straw hat, white beard, mustache and those wild, bushy eyebrows in front of a barn at the Milky Way Farm.
“We led a wonderful, full, simple life, and family was everything to us,” he said then. “That, and the farm.”
And that, it turned out, was my last Howard story. When he had to go into professional care last year, we finally started on the story of his life, what I called an oral history, but what he called a “2,000-page bestseller.”
“You’ll be famous for this,” he’d say.
He was slouched over for many of our videotaped sessions and in bed for the rest, but he always lit up when I walked in with my video equipment. Only once did he say he was too tired to work. Still, his humor, charm and verbal eloquence was always there, underneath his gaunt, bony appearance.
When a hospice worker came in one time to get him to sign the form to donate his body to science (UNR medical school), she leaned down and said, rather loudly, “Howard this form is because you’re donating your body to science,” as she held the clipboard to him. Everyone in the room fell silent. He looked at the form and then at her (she was pretty … he always appreciated pretty women), and beamed “How nice of me.” as he scrawled his name, which caught us all off guard.
In May, when we were taping and he was talking about the joys and adolescent horrors of starting high school in 1937, a crazed voice from out in the hall started yelling “Dory, Dory, Dory, Dory …” and all but drowned Howard’s weak voice out. This was a daily occurrence, I discovered. He stopped and apologized for the interruption, ever the attentive host, and I wondered how we’d come to this point, this robust man of nearly 6-foot, 5 inches, now looking so frail, so lost.
But the truth is, we all age, we all die, and we all have a life story to tell. I am 1,970 pages short of Howard’s 2,000 page bestseller, but the 30 pages of his weakened storytelling are still fascinating and illuminating. When you do an oral history, you learn two things Ð how to live a life and how not to live a life.
I have learned that brilliance is a gift, and that gifts and talents should be used and that often we need partners to help us get our dreams out. I’ve learned that waxing poetic about the past is enchanting and romantic, but living in the present and cherishing our loved ones today is important because someday this, too, will be the poetic past.
Since 1994, dozens of Western bluebirds have been raised in my Howard tree trunk bird houses here in Jacks Valley and right now, there are at least 15 lesser goldfinches, pine siskins and house finches on each of my three seed socks, and these sights will always remind me of Howard Godecke.
Like a father, he taught me how to live and how not to live, even when he didn’t know it. But when someone lights up when you enter the room, well, that’s irreplaceable.
Former R-C reporter, Linda Hiller wrote the wildlife column, View from Jacks Valley, from 1994 to 2001. She is completing Howard Godecke’s oral history and will give it to his family. A memorial service for Howard Godecke will be held Jan. 8, 11 a.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1480 Douglas Ave., Gardnerville.