The note arrived by mail more than 20 years ago, a couple of days after a column written about legendary football coach “Babe” Howell.
The column came out of a conversation we shared about how he was dealing with the loss of his wife Betty.
Those who knew this fine man, who died peacefully Saturday at age 84 with his family around him, will recognize and appreciate the note’s brevity.
You sure can write.
Still makes me smile every time I tell the story.
Never one to waste time or many words when six clearly delivered the message, Charles “Babe” Howell’s actions spoke loudly and for five decades as a football and baseball coach, leaving impressions and memories that reach far beyond hall of fame numbers.
Babe was the first WNC coach to reach 300 wins, but his 301 career victories were eventually surpassed by Murphy High’s David Gentry.
He won five state titles in two sports at Sylva-Webster, seven if you count a pair of Western Regional titles he won in 1965 and ’66, his first two seasons there, back when football titles weren’t decided by statewide playoffs.
His record in baseball for the Golden Eagles (628-220) borders on the ridiculous.
But for those who played for him, those who called him husband, father, grandfather and friend, the wins were byproducts of who he was.
Babe never left you hanging.
Little time lapsed between an introduction or a hello and a complete understanding of where you stood with him.
He coached in an era (from the 1950s to through the 90s) when football was about being tough and disciplined, traits that came naturally to Babe.
His players despised the routine of two laps around the track before practice and wind sprints after, but they yes sir-ed him and ran them every time.
Smoky Mountain High let him go in 1990 when he was still going strong, but he didn’t whine. He spoke his mind, which is what got him fired in the first place, let them know what a monumental mistake they had made and got on with his life.
“He taught me to walk when I was eight months old, and whenever I fell, he told me to suck it up, just like he told his football players,” said granddaughter Krissy Mabry. “He was the sweetest man I ever knew.”
Babe lost his beloved Betty to cancer in 1989 just as they were ready to stop coaching and enjoy the traveling of retirees and was fortunate to find Peggy, his second wife, in his last 15-20 years, sharing a life and visiting spots around the world.
And long after retirement, he still attended coaching clinics, sitting in the front row like an eager first-year assistant.
“A lot of guys stay out in the lobby or don’t even attend the clinics, but he was right there, soaking it all in,” former player Neil Setzer said.
We sat in his home in Crossnore in 2004, enjoying the incredible view of Grandfather Mountain, talking about his upcoming induction into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
He was proud and humbled by the honor and liked the fact that he would be the first football coach from WNC inducted.
“I’d like to think I helped a lot of kids,” he said that spring afternoon about this time of year. “Taught them well, watched them grow and lived my life the way I was supposed to as a coach and teacher.”
Last time I saw Babe was at an Appalachian State football game a few years back. Still hating the cold weather, he was bundled in several layers, only recognizable by those bushy eyebrows and eyes that still pierced when they locked in on you and twinkled when the sly smile began stretching across his face.
We talked a little football, and life.
In typical Babe fashion, he planned his own funeral, insisting on a Saturday service so it wouldn’t disrupt the lives of the people who want to say their goodbyes.
Farewell, my friend.
You sure could coach.