Longtime community members remember the man with the red wagon
Nate Howe was known as the man with the red wagon.
For the better part of two decades, Howe pulled his wagon around the streets of Lawrence, collecting cardboard boxes he would later sell to a recycling center for pocket change. When he became too sick to collect cardboard, Jodi Hitchcock, director of the DeSoto Multi-Service Center, was there to help him.
Hitchcock became Howe's legal guardian two years ago. She kept an eye on his health, provided him with companionship and when he died last week, she delivered his eulogy.
Those who have lived in the area for a while probably remember Howe, Hitchcock said, but few know the story behind the man with the red wagon.
"Nate had scarlet fever and polio when he was little, which caused him to have some physical and developmental problems," Hitchcock said. "He was teased a lot by the other kids, so during the second week of his third grade year, his dad took him out of school."
Howe's father was protective of his son and Howe loved his dad, Hitchcock said. When Howe was 14 years old, his dad gave up his job as a mule team driver to join the Lawrence Police Department. After three months, he was shot and killed on the job.
"Nate just fell apart then," Hitchcock said.
See Wagon, Page 2A
Howe spent the next few years in a mental health facility.
A big part of his life is a mystery, Hitchcock said, because Howe apparently blocked much of it from his memory.
During the 1970s and 1980s, He began his ritual of walking through town with his wagon. Community members kept an eye out for him, particularly members of the Lawrence Police Department.
"Nate's dad is one of only a couple of Lawrence police officers to be killed on the job, so the police took good care of him," Hitchcock said. "Someone stole his wagon once and the police bought him a new one. And later, when he went into a nursing home, the Fraternal Order of Police bought him a new television."
Howe lost another wagon and narrowly avoided death in 1980 when he had a close call with a train.
"He was crossing the tracks and his wagon got hit by a train. It missed him, but he had hold of the wagon," Hitchcock said. "Apparently he went flying pretty good. He lost his glasses and what teeth he had left."
Hitchcock met Howe a few years later while doing social work in Douglas County. He was a regular at the senior center and the two became friends. When she moved to her current job, a fellow social worker asked her to become Howe's legal guardian.
"I couldn't have done it while I was working in Douglas County because it would have created a conflict of interest," Hitchcock explained. "As soon as I moved to Johnson County, I got a call."
By the time she became his guardian, Howe was unable to make his own decisions.
"We had to go to court to have him declared incompetent," Hitchcock said. "He didn't really know what was going on at that point. He just looked at it as a chance to visit with the judge and show him his box of pictures."
For the next two-and-a-half years, Hitchcock helped take care of Howe. She overlooked his finances and when he got sick, she checked him into the hospital.
"When I totaled up everything, I think he had about $25 in assets," she said.
Besides keeping track of what he spent, Hitchcock visited Howe regularly at his nursing home. She learned his likes and dislikes, and did what she could to make him happy.
"He liked ice cream, Matchbox cars and the Wheel of Fortune," she said. "We missed Thanksgiving dinner at the nursing home because Wheel of Fortune was on."
Hitchcock's guardianship ended last week, when Howe died at the age of 82. Although her responsibilities ended with his death, Hitchcock helped plan her friend's funeral. Six uniformed police officers served as his pallbearers.
Although it's time consuming and sometimes emotionally draining, Hitchcock said, she would recommend the guardianship program to anyone.
"I got more out it than he did. It's just an unselfish act. They were asking me to give up a few hours of my week for a man who really had no one," she said. "They're asking for the bare minimum here, for someone who has nothing."