By Christopher Scott
LOWELL -- Former City Councilor and Mayor Richard P. Howe hit a milestone on Dec. 30. The Highlands resident and proud Lowellian turned 80.
Just a couple weeks later, the bridge that will carry his name, now under construction over the Merrimack River, reached a milestone Tuesday, when the last gigantic piece of its blue steel undercarriage was delicately guided into place by ironworkers for Walsh Construction Co.
Mike Verseckes, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the $32 million project that will connect Merrimack Street to University Avenue at UMass Lowell's North Campus -- while replacing the commonly known Textile Memorial Bridge just downstream on University Avenue -- is on schedule for completion in September 2014.
During 40 years on the City Council -- eight as mayor -- Howe proudly carried the reputation of a contrarian, particularly if the adversary was a city manager.
But he's not opposed to having a bridge carry his name.
"I'm very pleased and I'm also happy to hear it's on schedule," Howe said this week. "Forty years on the City Council is a long time, and I would say it is an achievement."
That's exactly what City Councilor Rodney Elliott had in mind when he asked the City Council a few years back to name the bridge after Howe, who didn't seek re-election in 2005.
"Dick Howe had a long and distinguished career in Lowell politics," Elliott said. "Naming what will be a significant landmark after him to recognize his years of service and all he accomplished seemed like the appropriate thing to do."
"I think it's a fitting way to recognize his service," said his son, Richard P. Howe Jr., who, like his father, went into public service as the North Middlesex register of deeds. "Forty years on the City Council and eight as mayor, I believe, is quite significant and an accomplishment."
Put in perspective, the elder Howe attended about 45 City Council meetings a year, as the body meets less frequently during the summer and around the holidays. That means over the course of 40 years, he spent about 1,800 Tuesday nights at City Hall.
Howe, the mayor and School Committee chairman at the time, still lists as his greatest achievement his involvement in a 1988 deal with the federal government that prevented the government from taking over the city's schools because minority children were not being given proper access to education.
Working closely with former Superintendent of Schools George Tsapatsaris and City Solicitor Thomas Sweeney, he helped convince U.S. District Court Judge Robert Keeton to allow the city more time to address the issue. Keeton agreed, and the takeover threat became a nonissue.
The silver lining to the once-threatening issue was that it led to the city's ambitious school-building and renovation project, during which more than a dozen educational facilities were either built or renovated.
Later, in 1994, Howe was among the councilors who approved giving Nynex a $4 million line of credit to rent space at Cross Point, the former Wang Laboratories world headquarters that had fallen on hard times and sold for $520,000 during a foreclosure auction.
Nynex, the former telecom giant, liked the space, but wasn't convinced the building's new owners had the financial juice to carry the massive towers. The line of credit was pushed through the council as an assurance to Nynex that its investment would be protected.
Not a dollar from the line of credit was tapped, and landing Nynex soon led to other tenants. Several years later, the building sold for more than $100 million.
And thirdly, but more broadly, Howe's last achievement speaks to the persona he developed on the council: sparring with city managers, particularly Joe Tully and, later, John Cox.
If Howe believed the city manager was conducting city business with the right interests -- those of its residents -- in mind, he was supportive. If he didn't, he was a city manager's greatest antagonist.
The adversarial role he often adopted led to many 8-1 votes, with Howe the minority.
Elliott's motion to name the bridge after his former colleague, however, was unanimously approved -- but with little fanfare.
Elliott hopes the city organizes a special event for Howe and his family when the bridge is ready to carry traffic.