In the late 1970s Howard Maskell walked along Tararu beach in Thames with fellow teacher Gary Baillie. The pair came across a vast number of starfish that had been washed ashore in a recent storm. Howard paused to pick one starfish up, throwing it back into the tide. He then repeated the action, patiently working his way along the line of stranded creatures, returning each to the water.
Finding the gesture next to futile, Gary turned to his friend and said, “there are thousands of them; you cannot hope to make a difference”. Pretending not to hear, Howard bent down and picked up another starfish, continuing his one-man rescue mission. He looked up at Gary, grinned and replied, “well, I made a difference to that one”.
In forty years of teaching, Howard Maskell made a difference to 5000 lives. His skills as an educator, a sports coach and a colleague were grounded in kindness and empathy. He commanded his classroom, earning the respect and affection of his students with a calm, conscientious manner, sustaining a rapport through his quick and wry sense of humour. His passing saw an outpouring of grief on social media, with comments numbering well into three figures, celebrating the man affectionately dubbed “Poppa Smurf”. “A true gentleman and exceptional teacher,” said one former student; “my favourite teacher…such an inspiration to me and the reason I majored in geography at university,” wrote another; “he was a wonderfully kind man who was also lots of fun and brightened everyone’s day,” said a third.
Howard John Maskell was born 23 December 1946 in Auckland, the third child of Arthur Maskell and Eileen Maskell (nee Langton). He was of English and Danish ancestry and named after Eileen’s brother Howard, who had died whilst on active service during World War II. Arthur worked for Sutherland Tannery and soon after Howard was born the family shifted into a three-bedroom state house in Onehunga. Howard would live there until he got married, sharing a room with younger brother Paul.
* A life-changing encounter en route to an airfield: The life of Molly Rebecca Gallagher, 1926-2022
* An artist, from school blackboard sketch to exhibitions: Joan Elizabeth Fear MNZM, 1932-2022
* A man who delivered thousands of Waikato babies: Richard George (Ru) Pirrit, 1937 – 2022
The Maskells did not own a car. Visits to grandparents were made via tram or train.
Howard attended Onehunga Primary School and from 1960 through 1964, Onehunga High School. As a young man he was fond of singing the hits of the day, the acoustics of the family home toilet showing off his boy soprano voice to advantage.
Keen on sport, Howard was rejected by a local rugby club on account of his height and thereafter embraced the beautiful game, playing soccer for both school and the Onehunga-Mangere Club. Aged 15 he tripped during a match and played on until half-time, despite having broken his arm. He also played tennis and was renowned for his running speed. With a competitive spirit, he excelled at card and board games, teaching younger sibling Paul as he would later instruct his own children and grandchildren.
After completing a Bachelor of Arts at Auckland University, in the late 1960s Howard enrolled at Auckland Teachers’ Training College. At a college party one night he met Ann Murray and the attraction was near instant. Their first date, an evening at Western Springs Speedway, ended memorably, with Ann shoving Howard’s unresponsive car, he behind the wheel, in an attempted push start. Howard would later propose in the Civil Defence Bunker at Mt. Eden. He and Ann were married in 1970.
After two years saving, Howard and Ann departed for England on New Year’s Eve 1971, aboard the Australis. Living in London for two years, travelling around Europe as frequently as finances would allow, Howard was initially employed as a relief teacher. On his first day, a bomb scare saw the school evacuated. On another occasion he was approached by a student and told “Mister, you are taking our class today because I didn’t like the last teacher so I got my brother to come in and beat him up and he is in hospital”.
A more permanent – and safer – position was secured with the Hendon Police Cadet College, teaching the geography of London. Aside from the irony of a colonial instructing the locals on their own city, Howard’s vertically challenged frame seemed at times comic next to the towering dimensions of the aspiring bobbies.
Adventures were had in Scotland, Scandinavia and Spain. A three-month stint on the continent was sustained through a diet of canned goods and tent living. Ann and Howard narrowly escaped being arrested in then Communist Yugoslavia when picnicking too close to a military site and were chased by Bulgarian police after taking a photograph of an impoverished suburb.
Returning to New Zealand, both Howard and Ann took teaching jobs at Thames High School in 1974. Their relative youth and inexperience were thought virtues by principal Terry Loney and consistent with other appointments. The staff grew together in their profession, socialising after hours, babysitting each other’s children and pitching in at house working bees.
One contemporary from this time remembers Howard as a “a fine, dependable, able, convivial and sociable man who was highly respected by students, colleagues and the community”. Aside from his teaching prowess, he was enthusiastic in sports, both in instruction and direct competition, his turn of speed invaluable in track relays, cricket and especially his beloved football. His trademark humour often expressed itself in practical jokes; his love of board games in the invention of one of his own. “Underneath [Howard’s]…earnest exterior”, said another teaching friend, “bubbled a fun streak itching to get out”.
Travis, Ann and Howard’s son, was born in 1980. Danielle, their daughter, was born in 1983.
In 1983, Howard was appointed head of social studies, geography and history at Hauraki Plains College, where he was to teach for the following 31 years. A referee’s report described him as “energetic and efficient, with a clear sense of purpose and loyalty” and that “in all that he undertakes the needs of the pupils and the morale of the staff he works with are paramount”. So it proved to be in his new appointment. As a curriculum leader Howard was proactive and sensitive to changing times and technology, instrumental in introducing computers and audio visual teaching into the college. In 1996 he won the Woolf Fisher Award, enabling him to travel to study the use of information technology in Australian schools.
Howard’s particular love of geography found expression in special camps and outdoor experiences, especially trips to Tongariro. He was also the mainstay of football at Hauraki Plains College, coaching for over two decades and continuing to play the game himself into his 40s.
Central to Howard’s success as an educator was his capacity to inspire by example, one grounded in a genuine enjoyment in working with young people. A calm, confident demeanour, always leavened with humour, saw him appreciated as a true gentleman by the harshest critics of all: his pupils. In the opinion of friend Gary Baillie, Howard’s career exemplified a wise old maxim: “students may not always remember exactly what you taught them but they will never forget how you made them feel”. Howard made his students feel respected and inspired.
Howard transitioned from full-time teaching to part-time work in 2005 and retired in 2013.
After 40 years living in Thames, Howard and Ann retired to Mangawhai, where son-in-law Barry built them a home. Retirement enabled further travel to be enjoyed. Over the years Howard and Ann ventured all around the world, including Africa, South East Asia, China, Australia, Canada and the USA, with extended holidays in California and a music trip through Memphis, Nashville, Mississippi and New Orleans.
Howard was an outstanding father, supportive yet non-judgemental, who bonded with both children and grandchildren over sport and games, especially poker.
After a brief battle with cancer, Howard John Maskell died on 19 September 2022, at home, surrounded by family. He is survived by Ann, his wife of 52 years, children Travis and Danielle, son-in-law Barry and seven grandchildren.