Guest Spot: My friend left behind a better place

Howard Meinke’s three children (L-R) Nancy Morrell, Jeffrey Meinke and Janice Dunbar all spoke at a memorial last week. (Credit: Michael White)
Howard Meinke’s three children (L-R) Nancy Morrell, Jeffrey Meinke and Janice Dunbar all spoke at a memorial last week. (Credit: Michael White)

I, along with much of Southold, mourn the loss of a good man, my friend Howard Meinke. Howard was more than just a friend. He was a comrade in our shared passion for both the environment and social justice and we often joined forces in the same battles. I am grateful for my time with Howard; I appreciated his sensibility about life and his pragmatic and determined approach to the many diverse challenges we face. He believed most problems could be resolved with hard work and perseverance.

Howard was also my mentor. During the eight years we worked together at North Fork Environmental Council, he taught me to believe in the possibility of change even when the odds were not in our favor — and to never give up fighting for your beliefs.

Howard was an inspiration because although he knew the environmental challenges we faced were great and the consequences of inaction dire, he also knew how to enjoy life. He taught me that you can be serious and committed to an issue, but that you also need to balance that passion with a bit of fun. I think Howard had a lot of fun.

In recent years, Howard’s body may have slowed a bit, but certainly not his mind. As many readers of The Riverhead News-Review know, he had a quick wit and, on occasion, an acerbic tongue that he used to hammer home whatever point he was trying to make — generally about humanity’s penchant for self-destruction, stupidity and greed. Howard was many things; subtle wasn’t one of them. But his brand of frank dialogue, I believe, served the community well. To use an old phrase, Howard spoke truth to power. He wasn’t afraid of offending people or being politically incorrect. He knew what was at stake and believed that we, as a community, and the greater civilized world should snap out of complacency and act accordingly.

Howard not only fought to protect the environment, he reveled in it. Howard often spoke of his boyhood summers on the North Fork and the bounty of sea life, clams, scallops oysters and finfish in Peconic Bay; about dangling his toes in the water and seeing the blowfish puff up in response; and about a lifetime of sailing on local waters. But his reminiscences were generally aimed at demonstrating how the environment has degraded over the years and how much of that biodiversity has been lost.

Sometime after Howard stepped down as NFEC board president, he and his wife, Peg, became snowbirds, wintering in Florida. But this didn’t prevent him from keeping up to date with what was happening in Southold and influencing the local debate. I would get frequent calls from him to find out what was going on in Town Hall or the status of the Comprehensive Plan. He remained my mentor — and conscience — often admonishing me for not doing enough to advance our mutual causes. It was gratifying to receive Howard’s draft letters to the editor, which he sent to me (among others) for feedback. My response was usually, “Perfect, don’t change a thing.” The last draft letter I received was on the morning of his death. One of the tragedies of Howard’s abrupt passing, I believe, is that he had much more to contribute to the community. But I can say with certainty, he made the most of the time he had on this earth.

My grief and that of Howard’s other friends and colleagues can’t possibly compare to that of Peg, his children and grandchildren, but I hope they can take solace in knowing — as the people of Southold should know — that our community is infinitely richer because Howard Meinke was here and cared so deeply about this special place.

Gwynn Schroeder is a former executive director and board member of the North Fork Environmental Council. She lives in Cutchogue.