By Jeff Guy
MOUNDRIDGE — Gary Howard feels compelled to share the darkest day of his life with others.
It was Aug. 3, 2002. Howard was in Kansas City where he was living with his wife and kids when he got the call. There was a car crash. His mother was being flown by LifeWATCH to Wesley Medical Center. His father was killed instantly.
Howard's mother survived and is alive and well today, but she was unable to attend her husband's funeral. Howard did arrange with the funeral home to have his father's body brought to the hospital before he was buried so his mother could say goodbye to her husband of 51 years.
"It was brutal," Howard said. "It was gut wrenching."
Howard's parents, Thomas, 79, and Artis Knowles, 71, had been driving in a funeral procession outside Emporia when their car was smashed into head-on. The driver of the other vehicle -- Joshua West, 27 -- was a three-time convicted drunk driver. His car caught fire, and he was killed. An autopsy report found he had methamphetamines in his system at the time of the crash.
Less than two months earlier, West had been in Lyon County district court over his most recent DUI. The judge told West to get a drug and alcohol evaluation, a pre-sentencing investigation was ordered and West was sent on his way until the date of his formal sentencing.
"We need to take the problem of drinking and driving more seriously as evidenced by what's happened to my mom and dad," said Howard, a retired probation officer who used to work with people like West."The best predictor of future behavior is what someone's done in the past."
Howard wants people to know that his parents were not simply some old couple who had lived out their lives. Thomas Knowles won bronze stars in World War II and worked at Boeing for 37 years. Artis Knowles had worked for years as a beautician.
For Howard and his two younger brothers, however, the biggest contribution Thomas and Artis Knowles made was taking them in when the boys were living in Wichita Children's Home. The Knowles furnished the only stable family life the youngsters had ever known.
Howard's birth mother died when he was 5-years-old. His birth father was a sheet metal worker making $1.25 and left to raise eight kids on his own. He was also an alcoholic. Howard recalled how he and his siblings used to check their father's pockets so they could find money to pay the bills.
The children were placed with their aunt and uncle in Douglas, but they were cruel and abusive. Howard recalled never taking a bath because the bathtub was always cluttered with junk, under which his aunt hid her vodka bottles.
Page 2 of 2 - Howard had been friends in Douglas with a nephew of the Knowles'. When he and his brothers wound up at Wichita Children's Home, this friend asked his aunt and uncle if they would check in on him. On Easter weekend in 1965, the couple visited the boys. A few months later, the Knowles — who had no children of their own -— took the boys home with them to raise.
Artis Knowles was big on geneology so she insisted that the boys keep their birth names, Howard said. She and her husband never formally adopted the children, but for all intents and purposes, they were the boys' mom and dad.
"If it hadn't been for my parents, I would've probably gone to prison," Howard said.
Howard went on to graduate from Bethel College, then received his master's degree in administration of justice from Wichita State University in 1978. He worked as a probation officer in Dallas, Texas, and later with federal courts in Kansas and Washington, D.C. before retiring in 2009.
"I did all that because these people took in three boys from the Wichita Children's Home," Howard said. "They're the linchpins to all of it."
Neither Artis Knowles nor Howard feel bitterness towards West. They acknowledge he had a troubled life and left behind an infant daughter who will never know her dad. They want others like him who drive while impaired to understand that their decisions can lead to tragedy.
That's what drives Howard to participate in DUI panels. People arrested for DUI's are required to attend these testimonials in which individuals whose lives have been devastated by drunk driving accidents, tell their stories.
Most young people cannot wait to turn 21 so they can legally buy alcohol. Howard believes people should be required to attend a DUI impact panel upon reaching that legal age. He feels they should be required for teenagers just getting their drivers licenses.
Howard recalled that his twin sons, Cory and Rory, attended a DUI victim panel Howard was speaking on the day they turned 21.
"It was the proudest day of my life," he said.