Voices of County Government - Donley County Judge John C. Howard, M.D.

County government officials are as diverse as the Texans who elect them, coming from every background imaginable. In this issue we talk with Donley County Judge (and physician) John C. Howard.

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How long have you been county judge?
5½ years.

Before your election, what kind of work did you do? How did you get interested in running for office?
I have been a physician since 1982 and still practice as the only doctor in the county. After paying off medical school loans in 1988, I volunteered for service in the U.S. Navy and became a flight surgeon in a Marine Corps fighter/attack squadron. During this time, I had the privilege to fly some of the most advanced jets in our country’s military arsenal. Following this tour of active duty, I remained in the Reserves while attending postgraduate schools to earn a law degree and master’s of health administration. Upon completion of school, I searched for a community in Texas with no doctor; we found and fell in love with Clarendon, moved to Donley County and have been here for 20 years.

When I retired from service with the Marines in 2014, I knew I wanted to find another way to serve – this time in my local community. Encouraged to run for judge by a former county commissioner, I was elected in 2014 and took office in 2015.

What was the biggest surprise or adjustment after taking office?
It was a real eye-opener to see how many things cross the desk of a county judge in a small Texas community. I knew I would have a primary judicial function, preside over the Commissioners Court, and serve as the emergency management director. I now know that I am also the emergency management coordinator, the auditor, the budget director and so on. If we do not have a department or office for it — and with only 32 full-time employees, we often do not — then it usually lands on my desk. Fortunately, TAC offers a wealth of support and my judicial colleagues are uniformly a group who welcome the opportunity to provide assistance.

What are some of the most difficult challenges you have faced and what advice would you give your peers across the state who may face the same or similar challenges?
The current pandemic is clearly the greatest challenge so far. The broad impact on the nation, the state and all communities has touched every life and demands attention from those of us in leadership positions. Public response to the pandemic varies from skepticism to outright fear. And there is no shortage of opinion on how best to deal with the crisis. I believe that my responsibility as a leader in our community is to provide timely, credible information and to instill a sense of calm reassurance for today and hope for tomorrow. Consistent messaging with a confident and optimistic demeanor from leadership provides the encouragement all our constituents need.

Since taking office, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
Adapting my leadership style to the natural collegiality which existed among the commissioners, we have together made strides to advance county government to serve our community better while cultivating a sense among elected officials and employees that they are our most valuable resource.

Also, recognizing that the present day commissioners are stewards of our 130-year-old courthouse — which was renovated in 2003 under the leadership of Judge Jack Hall — we have embarked on an effort to embellish the beautiful structure by planting over 50 trees to replace many that had to be removed. Taking down a tree in the Panhandle can be controversial to the point of inciting anger, but our tree planting has been well received, and the courthouse square will be enjoyed by generations to come.

What do you find are the most successful methods for reaching out to the residents of Donley County to communicate what your office is doing and why?
I meet regularly with the publisher of our county’s only newspaper, the weekly Clarendon Enterprise. During the current pandemic, our calls and visits are at least daily as he updates the online version to provide timely information to the community. Also, I have written several pieces for the paper. And I recently held the first-ever live streaming press conference in Donley County. The sheriff, a physician assistant from the clinic, the director of EMS and I answered questions from the public on a wide range of COVID-related issues.

I also meet regularly with other elected county and municipal officials and, until recently, the weekly Lions Club provided an opportunity to keep each other informed. I consider myself approachable as I meet others at church or in the store. And I will often have patients at my clinic ask me about a county issue — and sometimes they visit me at the courthouse with a medical problem!

What do you do when you’re not at work? Do you have any hobbies or something unique that you are interested in that may surprise your colleagues?
I enjoy landscaping and working outdoors at home and at my medical office. I also enjoy architecture, having designed both my home and my medical clinic. But I am most gratified by reading and studying the Bible and books about the Bible. I find that the wisdom contained therein is necessary for life and particularly useful for public life.

What is your favorite thing about Donley County?
The virtues esteemed by the people of Donley County, of West Texas, the values they embrace, the neighborliness of the people here first attracted me to Donley County. The people are the reason I came here 20 years ago and why I will stay here until the end.