Lighting Candles – Bill Howard, RIP

Dr. William E. Howard III

I received word today that one of my genetic genealogy “friends” has passed over. Dr. William E. Howard III was just known to us as Bill.

Most people didn’t know Bill was a PhD and had a distinguished career in astronomy. Genetic genealogy was his “second career,” after retirement, and he was responsible for devising the RCC methodology for determining the time to a most common recent ancestor for a group of men who have taken Y STR tests.

If you’re interested in his methodology, you can read more about it here or in the genealogy-DNA rootsweb archives and ISOGG@yahoogroups.com where he posted under the e-mails of wehoward@post.harvard.edu and wehowardiii@gmail.com and weh8@verizon.net.  Bill created a YouTube video that explains this methodology which is both interesting and educational.  What Bill’s methodology lacked, unfortunately, was an easy user interface.

CeCe Moore has also provided this link to Bill’s talk at the I4GG Conference in 2014, never before released except to paid subscribers, titled “Using Correlation Techniques on Y-Chromosome Haplotypes to Determine TMRCAs, Date STR Marker Strings, Surname Groups, Haplogroups and SNPs.”

This article really isn’t about Bill’s methodology, but how his thought processes and willingness to think about genetic genealogy in a different way and look at possibilities helped to revolutionize and actualize an infant field. We need an army of Bills, each contributing in their unique and individual ways.

Genetic genealogy attracts many great minds, often retired from distinguished careers with decades of invaluable experience. I think the fact that genetic genealogy is a new field, not yet defined and put into boxes of known quantities is part of what makes this field so attractive to these bright minds. There is still ample opportunity for truly meaningful and even revolutionary contributions.

Bill wasn’t afraid of scrutiny and he wasn’t afraid to fail. If you’re afraid to fail, in essence, you’ve already failed. And in the public social media world, scrutiny can be brutal.

Bill exemplified the role of a research genetic genealogist. He thought outside the box and then sought to prove or disprove his theories. He shared freely and depended on people submitting their data to be analyzed in order to refine his processes. He was willing to work with anyone at any level of experience. He was never condescending or treated anyone disrespectfully – his professional demeanor was impeccable. Far from being intimidating, Bill was very unassuming and tried to explain difficult concepts in ways that people could understand.  He encouraged everyone.

Bill knew that he was ill and used his last few months to “tie up” many of his loose ends, submitting several papers to JOGG for publication. I hope that these papers can be published posthumously in order to preserve his methodologies for posterity and for others to build upon, or discard, as appropriate. That’s the way science works and Bill wanted to contribute to that process.

You left your exchanges with Bill feeling good about genetic genealogy and not diminished in any way, even if you didn’t understand or agree with his theories or findings. I feel enriched and honored to have counted him among my colleagues. It’s people like Bill that have helped this field emerge from the unknown to a dinner conversation topic at the table of strangers next to yours in a restaurant.

Bill reached for the stars – in terms of his scientific approach and methodologies as well as his enabling and encouraging can-do attitude. To me, the great generosity with which Bill approached genetic genealogy and his fellow travelers in this field, regardless of their level of expertise, is Bill’s legacy.

I hope that Bill can serve as an inspiration. We need mentors, guides and good examples – and Bill was that above anything. We are all students, everyday. Learning is lifelong, cradle to grave.

We are all diminished when the flame is extinguished, too soon. I hope that Bill’s quiet example and gracious approach to genetic genealogy, and people, serves to light other candles.

Rest in Peace, Bill.

Update 6-27-2016: For anyone interested, I know Bill Howard was active in genealogy groups along the beltway around Washington DC, into Virginia. I received word today that his memorial service has been planned, per the following message from his family.

We wanted to let you know that the family has planned a Memorial Service for my father, Bill Howard, for July 23rd, 2016 at 2pm at Redeemer Lutheran Church.
The address for Redeemer is:
1545 Chain Bridge Road
McLean, VA 22101

10 thoughts on “Lighting Candles – Bill Howard, RIP

  1. Sad to learn that Bill has gone on ……. I worked with Bill off and on for about a decade looking for his Mary McKee, we never found her but I am always looking for his Pennsylvania Mary McKee. Maybe on the other side for Bill now.

    Linda McKee

  2. Bill Howard was a wonderful scientist and inspiring genetic genealogist — he was a pioneer in his field and a very nice person all around. As I remember him, Bill had a sense of humor and was very easy to talk to and he was a real help to me and everyone else who were digging in to this new world of DNA testing for genealogy purposes. I’m remembering a conversation that I had with him as we stood in front of a meeting place for genetic genealogists in Northern Virginia as I write this. He was smiling as I recall him then. Rest in Peace, Bill, and I offer my condolences to his family.

  3. Thank you Roberta. I think you truly captured many of the key elements that made Bill so special. He was a regular participant and presenter at our Genetic-Genealogy subgroup of the Fairfax County (VA) Genealogy Society. A great bunch of friends in that group – and Bill will be missed.

  4. It was only four short months ago that I first met Bill via Skype and had the privilege of getting to know a good man and being imparted insights and understandings of his RCC Method for TMRCA calculations.

    It was about 6 weeks ago Bill submitted six unpublished papers to JoGG for publication. Then just 3 weeks ago when his papers were at varying stages of peer review he was advise that his cancer had returned and that his time was short. Knowing he would not have the time or strength to complete the review process, Bill suggested to Leah Larkin, Editor Journal of Genetic Genealogy, that his papers be published as a legacy and that two of his friends and colleagues Sidney Sachs and David Hogg together with myself could assist with the review process. To think Bill had confidence in my understanding of RCC is humbling and hopefully the three of us can do a good job on Bill’s behalf.

    Bill said to me ‘you have to be tough to grow old’. Bill you were tough, focused and determined but most importantly you always tackled life’s problems and challenges with humbleness, dignity and a smile. So we have now had the last ‘Bye from Bill’ … go in peace and in God’s grace. Take care it was a pleasure knowing you. Heartfelt condolences to his family.

    • I had heard from Bill about 3 months ago and he told me he was stable and doing fine. So imagine my surprise when I got the note from his wife that he had passed. I knew he was working on papers. I’m glad he only knew for 3 weeks. Nothing is worse than being both unproductive and suffering. Both would have been torture to Bill. I very nearly closed this article with “Bye from Bill,” but I knew most people wouldn’t have understood:) I guess I never really expected it to be bye for real, just until next time. 😦

  5. For anyone interesed, I know Bill Howard was active in genealogy groups along the beltway around Washington DC, into Virginia. I received word today that his memorial service has been planned, per the following message from his family.

    We wanted to let you know that the family has planned a Memorial Service for my father, Bill Howard, for July 23rd, 2016 at 2pm at Redeemer Lutheran Church.

    The address for Redeemer is:
    1545 Chain Bridge Road
    McLean, VA 22101

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