(8th December 1929 – 24th August 2017)
Francis Howitt, or Fritz as he was more commonly known, was born in Oxford in 1929. His father was an engineer working at the Morris car plant at Cowley and his mother was an accountant. He had a younger brother, Peter, who died several years ago.
Fritz was introduced by his parents to a life of culture from an early age, taking him to the theatre, ballet, concerts and opera. They acquainted him with literature, boating and caravanning, and also gave him a love of animals, especially dogs. He was a very able child and won a scholarship to Magdalen College School, which could have been a doorway to Oxford University. His abilities meant he could have taken several pathways in life- at one point he considered being a vet or a doctor, however at the age of 17 he passed his exams for Dartmouth Naval College and on 18th September 1947 he embarked on his naval career.
In his youth, Fritz was a keen sportsman, enjoying riding, golf, tennis and fencing, and in the latter he became proficient enough to represent the Navy in competitions. He had a mechanical bias from the start and enjoyed repairing and riding motorbikes, but at one point thought he might become a naval architect as he had a talent for drawing. This talent continued throughout his life with pen and ink drawings and ultimately watercolours.
When he graduated from Dartmouth College he joined the Royal Engineering College as an officer which lead to many adventurous voyages. However, in 1953, due to illness, he was sent home from Malta- this illness lead to the end of his naval career.
This must have been a great disappointment to him, but in true Fritz fashion he just got on with things and entered the teaching profession, through which he met his future wife Pat, whom he married in 1956.
Shortly after he and Pat were married they moved to Canada to McGill university, where Pat obtained a history degree, and Fritz an MA, having completed research in the field of Nuclear Energy. Ultimately, he became a professor in the mechanical engineering department. He and Pat returned to the UK in 1963 where he took up the post of senior lecturer at Aberdeen University and at one point was head of the Merchant Navy department at South Shields Technical College where he remained until his retirement 20 years later. His colleague and friend John Hursey said of him “he was an exceptional educationalist who wanted students to transform their lives through developing what is good about choices and self-control in contrast to the effects of self-indulgence”. During his years as Principal, the College was one of only two that remained financially in the “Black”, an achievement of which he was justly proud. His home during his time in Kent was an historic house set in 3 acres of tree-filled land where in Churchillian fashion he wandered the estate taming the vegetation- sadly the gales in 1987 saw the demise of over 100 trees but he set to with chainsaw and almost single-handedly addressed the situation. When the Channel Tunnel threated his beloved Tutt Hill house he relocated to Malton and choosing the property with the most specimen trees he moved in and named it Tutt Hill.
He embraced life in the north by joining various societies and of course the local church. Fritz was born into a catholic family but became an Anglican in 1950. He knew that this would upset his mother but wrote to her saying:
“One must do what one believes to be right. Regardless of anything or anyone. Please remember it is the same God we worship, we travel the same roads though it be on different pavements”
Throughout his life, Fritz had an undiminished sense of adventure whether in travelling the world or absorbing fresh knowledge. There were few topics of conversation whether intellectual, technical, scientific or mundane that he would not engage in. He loved sailing and at one time owned his own yacht. When he sold that he went cruising regularly, right up to early this year. He was passionate about music and particularly opera. He was a Friend of Glyndbourne and attended performances every year from 1952-2016, keeping every programme.
His eclectic taste in entertainment became apparent on looking through his collection of recordings- grand opera nestling next to Gilbert and Sullivan, Flanders and Swann, Mamma Mia and Jerry Springer The Opera. The entire stage productions of Shakespeare rubbed shoulders with Allo Allo, Harry Potter, James Bond and The Italian Job, the latter surely echoing many of the principles that Fritz believed in, namely:
His bookshelves were filled with a complete range of subjects, including music, yachting, trains, nature, poetry, mechanics- in fact anything you can imagine- but the title that perhaps stood out most was The Joy of Mathematics!
Fritz was never without dogs, many of whom were rescues. Naming the males was no problem, just think of an Admiral.
Horses also played a part in Fritz’s life- he had a share in a racehorse although he himself never gambled. When he was at Magdalen College School, and against school rules, the boys like to bet on the horses. Fritz, because of his mathematical ability, was designated “bookie”. Despite trying to make the odds in his friends’ favour, he became so embarrassed by the fact that he always won that he resolved never to place a bet himself.
Fritz was a true gentleman, quietly spoken and with a ready smile. He was noted for his generosity whether as a host or in his support of numerous charities. Despite failing health, he never complained and appreciated all the help he received from his neighbours and friends, getting him to hospital appointments, collecting his newspaper, entertaining him and providing companionship. He found so much delight in a world he contributed to and a faith that sustained him from an early age. So, we should celebrate the life that was Francis Howitt.
Your duties done
Unfurl the sails
No one can ask for more
“I’ll take the helm” the captain said
And lead you safe to shore.
*Taken from the eulogy at Fritz’s funeral, September 2017