For the 2,000 youths in Northwest Montana who take the state’s Hunter Education course each year, it’s a week-long prerequisite before their first day of hunting.
For Leonard Howke of Whitefish, it’s been a calling that has lasted half a century.
Last month he became one of just three hunting instructors in the state to reach the 50-year mark as a hunting instructor. At 72, he’s also the youngest, and was honored at the regional instructor workshop last month for his service.
“I’m doing things right, I hope,” Howke said afterward, characteristically low-key. “I got the 50-year award, I never dreamed I’d go that far. But I enjoy working with the kids.”
Jack Cochrane, who met Howke about 20 years ago when he started as a Hooked on Fishing instructor, sat at a table of other instructors as they watched the ceremony.
“He’s an amazing guy,” Cochrane said. “One thing, it’s hard to get people to keep volunteering. Leonard’s an example of a guy who just gives and gives and gives.”
Howke got his start teaching hunting classes — then in the program’s seventh year — in Whitefish in 1964, when he “kind of got roped into it,” as he puts it.
“I just kind of sat in the first year and listened to the other instructors and saw how they handled it,” he said. “I thought it would be fun to work with the kids.”
His natural ability to keep kids’ attention and make them laugh has made him a top instructor in the serious job of teaching kids as young as 12 to safely handle firearms.
Howke’s friend and fellow Whitefish instructor, Tim Stoddard, said it was Howke who made him want to start teaching hunting classes 20 years ago. He remembered being struck by his deep appreciation of young kids’ limitations and the energy and time he put into making sure they understood the course material.
“The way Leonard teaches becomes kind of contagious,” said Stoddard. “He developed the idea of reading the test to them. You know, 11- and 12-year-old kids don’t ready at the same speed. If they struggled, he would slow down and if they kept struggling we’d regroup.”
Howke said one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is helping kids who struggle, and finding ways to get to relate to the lessons in the manual.
“I really admire them, and I love sitting down with them and getting to know their point of view when the other kids won’t.”
The outdoors were a part of his life as far back as he can remember, when camping was a nearly weekly occasion that brought him together with his parents and two sisters.
“My dad used to take us camping a lot. He’d get Wednesdays and Thursdays off from the railroad and we’d go camping nearly every week,” he said. “Every year the whole family used to get together and spend a couple of days in the woods, camping and telling stories. Sometimes there would be about 12 of us.”
Howke credits Hunters Education with helping him stay active after an accident in the forest left him disabled for life, costing him his job as a heavy equipment operator with the former Anaconda Aluminum Company.
“September 26, 1981. That’s when my life changed,” he said. “It was on the weekend, I was with my wife and son picking mushrooms. I saw a dead tree and decided to go cut it to get some firewood, and then the top fell down on me.”
The massive log smashed into him, and it took four surgeries, two metal rods in his back and seven fused vertebrae before he was out of the hospital.
“They didn’t think I’d ever walk again, but being bull-headed like I am, I guess I fooled ‘em,” he joked.
“The classes helped to keep my mind off of it, along with fishing,” Howke said with a smile. “When I got hurt that gave me more incentive to keep going. I didn’t want to give up, and that was something I’d really good forward to.”
He’s also volunteered at the Olney game check station for the past 25 years, and said his favorite part is seeing one of his students roll through with their first animal.
“Of course, we treat them with a candy bar and a certificate. They get so happy, jumping up and down. Their excitement keeps me going,” he said. “One of the kids shot a deer over by Libby and they drove all the was over to Olney just to show me his deer. The dad was grumbling a little bit, but you could tell he was proud. He was a student of mine, too.”
His volunteer work isn’t limited to classes and game checks, either, as he’s spent over two decades as a fishing instructor, nine years helping the Fish, Wildlife and Parks trap black bears, grizzlies and sharp-tailed grouse, and countless hours volunteering for myriad programs related to fish and game.
“I do anything I can to volunteer with wildlife,” he said. “I helped take bighorn sheep off Wild Horse Island. Some went to Libby and some to Eastern Montana. There’s a lot of sheep on the island and you don’t want to get them too overpopulated there.”
Friends of Howke consider him a legend in wildlife circles throughout the state, and although his honors have to be pried out of him, he won a career achievement award from the Northwest Montana Game Wardens Association in 2003, was the 2007 recipient of the Montana Wildlife Society’s Wildlife Conservation Award and was the winner of the Flathead Audubon Society’s Conservation Achievement award in 2010.
“There’s probably no one in Fish and Game who doesn’t know who he is,” Stoddard said. “He just puts everyone else first.”
Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.