Librarian, Russian Translator, and Opera Lover Moved to Chevy Chase in 1960s
Interviewee: Murray Howder
Date: Jan. 15, 2018
Interviewed and transcribed (from audio recording) by: Joan Solomon Janshego
Locaton: Howder residence in Chevy Chase DC
Q – I am here with Murray Howder. Tell me where were you born.
A – I was born in Washington, D.C., at George Washington University Hospital. At that time, it was located at 14th and H streets, NW, where Café Mozart is today.
Q – When were you born?
A – August 10, 1932
Q – Where did you live growing up?
A – We lived in Northeast Washington except for several years when I was very young when we lived in Forestville, Maryland.
Q – Tell me about your parents.
A – My father was William Joseph and my mother was Hilda Rose. My father came from Kentucky. My mother came from Baltimore.
My father was one of seven children. He went to Gonzaga High School. He lived near there.
He had a law degree from what was then Columbia School of Law, located where the Thomas House is now on Massachusetts Avenue. The Columbia School of Law merged into Catholic University. He had a private practice in civil law.
Although my father was born in Kentucky, his parents lived in Niagara Falls, New York, where they had an apple orchard. I saw the old homestead once. It was built around 1850.
Q –Do you know anything about the derivation of the name Howder?
A – No I do not. It is not that common of a name. I think it may be Swiss or German.
Q – You said your mother came from Baltimore. What else can you tell me about her?
A – At some point, her family left Baltimore, because she went to Franklin Elementary at 14th and K streets. She was one of three children. She went to Business High School in the District. She worked for the Internal Revenue Service as a supervisor in charge of those reviewing income tax returns.
Q – Do you have siblings?
A – I have one sister. She lives in Loudoun County, Virginia.
Q – What was your childhood like?
A – I remember being in plays. I particularly remember being in A Christmas Carol at school. As kids, we played games, particularly athletic games like soccer and baseball.
Q – Were you a good athlete?
A – I was not terribly good, but I enjoyed it.
Q – What was the neighborhood like back then?
A – I lived in a garden-style apartment on 17th Street. It does not exist any more. The Rhode Island Avenue apartment that we lived in later is still there.
Q – What was the racial mix of the neighborhood?
A – There were white families.
I remember one terrible thing. When we lived on 17th Street, I remember that they were digging up the street and there were chunks of rocks on the street. A boy, who was a neighbor, took one of the rocks and hit me on the forehead. I was probably six or seven years old at the time.
Q – Do you remember if it was serious enough to get medical attention?
A – I do not remember.
Q – What schools did you attend?
A – I went to Langdon Elementary School, Taft Junior High, and McKinley Technical High School. Then I went to George Washington University. I earned a BA in International Relations at George Washington.
Q – What did you do after you graduated from George Washington University?
A – I enlisted in the Army Language School, where I continued to study Russian. This was in 1955 and 1956. I was in the second Russian language class that they ever had.
After that, I went to Middlebury College in Vermont and got a MA in Russian. Later, I went to Catholic University and got an MS in Library Science.
Q – It sounds like you were interested in the Foreign Service, since you had strong credentials. What did you do when you became employed?
A – I went to work for SHAPE.
Q – What does SHAPE stand for?
A – Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
Q – When was this?
A – It was in 1956 and 1957.
Q – What were you duties at SHAPE?
A– I translated Russian material into English. Other times, I assisted the American officers in charge.
Q – Are you still fluent in Russian?
A – I am not that much today, because it fell into disuse. I can still understand what is being said. Engaging in a conversation is more difficult for me at this time. I remember that once I took a ship from London to Leningrad. I heard the Russian crew criticizing the Germans. I just listened, but they did not realize I knew every word that they said.
Q – Did you spend much time in Russia?
A – I made three trips, but this was personal travel.
Q – After your two-year stint at SHAPE, what did you do?
A – After that I worked at the Library of Congress for nine years in the Russian Section. I worked on a Bibliography called the Monthly Index of Russian Accessions. I also edited materials, scientific materials. This was in English from Russian.
Q – What were the circumstances of you deciding to earn a MS in library science?
A – When I was working at the Library of Congress, I applied for a promotion. I did not get it and was told that it was because I did not have a library science degree. So I began going to Catholic University to earn the degree. I did this at night while I was working. To fulfill the requirements, I wrote a dissertation on the Soviet Navy based on Russian sources.
Q – What was your next position after the Library of Congress?
A- I was offered a position at the Naval Academy in the library. I ran what was called the Brigade Library. It served the midshipmen in the barracks. It was a branch of the main library.
A – How long did you stay there?
A – A little less than a year. I commuted — and it was a long commute — and that is why I left. This was in the late 1960s. Then I went to Gallaudet University, where I worked in the library.
Q – Did you have to know sign language to do that job?
A – I took sign language lessons, but I did not become fluent.
Q- What position did you hold after Gallaudet?
A – I took a position at the Association of Research Libraries. This is an organization of the biggest libraries in the United States. I was assistant director. I helped with the Slavic Bibliographic Center, which was a project that put out bibliographies of Russian materials. I helped with different projects. We put out a bulletin once a year. I helped write publications.
The Association is made of mostly academic libraries. That was a good job. I also worked for the Education Resources Information Center for nine years. It was in Bethesda. I was the acquisitions librarian and was responsible for getting materials into the database.
But then I had the chance to head my own library at VSE Corporation. It is a private engineering company in Alexandria. I was asked to set up the library. I ran it for 15 years after setting it up.
Q – Do you have a science or engineering background?
A – Not really. But I acquired some knowledge. I retired from there in 1997.
Q – Of all these positions that you held, did you have a favorite?
A – The last one – VSE – where I stayed the longest. They were good to me, and I was good to them. They were appreciative of what I did. It is a public company and it is on Nasdaq. It is doing well.
Q – When did you move to this house?
A – It was in 1966. I was working at the Library of Congress at the time.
Q – Why did you choose this house?
A – I lived and worked on Capitol Hill, but I was looking for a change. I thought going to Northwest Washington was an adventure. I came here looking for a place on Connecticut Avenue. There was no place to park on Connecticut Avenue, and so I parked in front of this house. There was a for sale sign on it. I recognized it as a quality-built house, and I liked everything about it – the side hall plan, that it had lots of windows, and it was built in 1924.
Q – What style would you call this house?
A – It is called prairie style. A German firm built it, although I do not know its name. I know that the Fishers lived there before me. I assumed the mortgage from the Vogel Real Estate Company, and so they must have been owners at one time although Vogel did not live there. It was built in 1924. Someone wrote in the attic on a board the date of 1924. I also researched the date at the Recorder of Deeds.
Q – Interestingly, Evelyn Wrin, who researches house histories, did research on your home. She found that the first owner was William H. Beckstein and the builder was A. C. Warthen. Interestingly she found that the German connection was the architect, Alexander H. Sonnemann. He was born in 1872 and died in 1956, not too long before you purchased the house. He was descended from a long line of architects and engineers and was the son of Rebecca and Georg Frederic Ludwig Ottmar Sonnemann.
The younger Sonnemann was trained by his father, did an apprenticeship, and opened his own office in 1895 when he was 23. He grew up on the family farm on Brookville Road (later Sections 6 & 7, Chevy Chase Village) and later lived at 129 Grafton Street. He designed numerous commercial buildings and over 40 apartment houses including Kew Garden Apartments, Q Street, and a 1936 addition to the Kennedy-Warren Apartments.
He joined with Louis Justement in the firm Sonneman & Justement (1919-24). Sonneman designed several homes for family members in Chevy Chase, and, from 1927, was the architect for Kennedy-Chamberlin’s Kenwood subdivision.
Q – What is your reaction to this information?
A – That is very interesting.
Q – Anything else you want to say as to why you like the house?
A –It suits me. It’s very convenient. I have more than enough room.
Q – We would like to know what it was like here in the 60s when you moved in. What can you tell me about the stores you may have gone to?
A – I went to Magruders and there was the Piccadilly Restaurant, which is now the Parthenon Restaurant. I went there the first night I was here. I had just gone to settlement, and I had no food in the house. I always said that the Piccadilly saved my life. Another restaurant that I liked was the Peking.
Q – Where was that located?
A – It was in the Arcade. It was all the way in the back. It was the other side from where the beauty shop used to be. There is a fitness business there now.
Then there was a People’s drug store, which is where CVS is now located. I bought groceries at Safeway. There was no traffic light at Connecticut and Livingston. Between the time that I bought the house and the time that I moved in, they put in the traffic light. I say they put it in for me. The same thing happened with lighting. I put in the gaslight because there was no street light in front of my house. Then they put one in after I put in the gaslight.
Q – Has the neighborhood changed since you moved in?
A – People moved. Next door, in the white house, was a lovely lady. She had lived there since 1919 and died in 1983. She had no children. Her husband died years before. She was very hospitable. She had lots of parties. She had a brother who took her places. During the riots when we were under curfew, she and I sneaked out by way of Nevada Avenue. We went to the Chevy Chase Country Club for dinner.
Q – Tell me a bit more about the occupants of the little house next door on the other side of your house?
A – They were an Irish woman and her sister who lived in that little house next door. It was built in 1958, the newest house on Livingston Street. She was the sweetest woman. Her husband had died by the time that I moved here. First, they lived in the bigger house on the other side. The son had five children and so the Irish woman had the little house built and they gave the bigger house to the son and his children.
Q – You describe her as Irish. How so?
A -They were very Irish. They played Irish music all of the time.
Q – Was there neighborhood mingling? Did you have neighborhood parties?
A – Block parties, yes. We had one fairly recently. They usually do it in the backyards. Some of my closest friends are down the street. She worked at the library at American University and he worked at the Library of Congress. They have had block parties at their house.
Down the street was a Russian lady. I helped her with tasks such as changing light bulbs or taking her to have her car inspected. She had never been to Russia. She was born in Poland, but Russia was her heritage. I spoke to her in Russian. She died not too long ago. She was here when I moved in. She and her husband had interesting friends, like once Solzhenitsyn visited them.
Q – Did you meet him?
A – No, I am afraid that I did not. You know that he lived in Vermont and he was visiting.
Q – Do you know much about the background of the lady next door?
She never worked. She bought the house from a man who built it in 1911, who was a math teacher at Western High School. She died in 1983. Since then, there that have been three families there.
Q – Do you have a recollection of holidays in your neighborhood?
A – There was some caroling going around from year to year. I think fairly recently.
Q – You mentioned the riots that occurred after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. What do you remember about that?
A – My uncle had a store on 7th Street, which was burned to the ground. I remember coming from my job at Annapolis. It was a beautiful afternoon. I remember I was on Route 50 and I saw the smoke. It turned out to be downtown Washington burning. When I got to the Beltway, it was at a standstill. So I took New Hampshire Avenue. When I got to Georgia and Missouri avenues, I knew it was not good. Every single car I saw driving north on Georgia Avenue had broken windows.
When I got home, I went to the Safeway. As soon as I got in the store, an announcement said that they were closing the store, and we should immediately finish our shopping. I threw $20 dollars worth of groceries in my cart and that is what I lived on for three days because we were under curfew.
I remember I was working in the backyard in the garden and along came a caravan or group of Marines on motorcycles down the alley right along my fence.
Q – How did that make you feel?
A – It made me feel creepy — we were having the armed military coming down my alley.
Q – When you moved here, you indicated that you thought it seemed way out.
A – I thought it was a great change, which it was. I was living on Capitol Hill. The style of this house is single family. On Capitol Hill, it was all row houses. It was less congested in Chevy Chase.
Q – Did you garden here?
A – I used to here. But I never did at Capitol Hill, because there was not enough space.
Q – Where was your house on Capitol Hill?
A – The house was on Constitution Avenue. It was the fifth street from the Capitol. I walked to work.
Q – How did you get to work while living in Chevy Chase?
A – I either drove or took the bus. When I drove, I parked on the street. There was a L-1 bus, which was an express to Capitol Hill. It does not exist any more I think. I picked it up at Livingston and Connecticut Avenue.
Q – Someone told me that you have an avocation — you love opera.
A – Yes. It started with my listening to the radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera 50 years ago. I was introduced to it at that time.
Q – What draws you to it?
A – I love the music. I also love the stories and seeing it. I am going to see it tomorrow. I will see Norma at the Mazza Gallery. It is a live performance by the Metropolitan Opera
Q – Is it hard to get tickets?
A- No. You go up there and buy. I do that in August. I am going with a friend who I educated into liking opera.
Q – Do you know the languages? Or do you read the subtitles?
A – I know some of the languages, but the subtitles help a lot.
Q – Do you watch opera on PBS?
A – Yes. On Saturday morning the Metropolitan Opera is on.
Q – Do you have a favorite opera?
A – Yes. Roberto Devereux. He was the lover of Queen Elizabeth I of England. It is a French name, but he was English. He was unfaithful to her, and she had him executed. Donizetti wrote it. He did three operas about the Tudors. One of the others was Maria Stuarda.
Q – Why is Roberto Devereux your favorite?
A – I like the music. The music is always the key part of why I love opera. Besides the music, I like the stories, the costumes, and the drama. But I do not like the modern operas.
Q – Why not?
A – They are not musical to my ear.
Q – What were the circumstances of your liking opera? What was your first experience?
A -We had a woman living with us who liked opera. She listened to it on the radio, and I heard it. This was before I went to college. In recent years, I taught opera at the Chevy Chase House.
Q –You are not doing it any more?
A – They stopped it after a while. I don’t know why. It was very popular.
Q – How did you put the class together?
A – I took a particular singer and used arias for that singer to illustrate that singer’s capabilities in various operas. I concentrated on individual singers.
Q – Who is your favorite singer?
A – Sergei Lemeshev was the greatest Russian tenor who ever lived. Lily Pons was the most popular female singer in the USA at one time.
Q – Do you go to the Met in New York?
A – Yes. I drove there a couple of times. I have also gone by train and by bus. I remember one time I wanted to go to the opera, but I could not find a hotel to stay in because the United Nations was meeting. Then I found a hotel on 10th Avenue. The room came with parking, so I decided to drive. It worked out beautifully.
Q – How long ago was that?
A – This was within the last 10 years. I drive now but only locally.
Q – Tell me a little more about your professional friendships?
A – I had a lot of Russian friends. I was a member of the Society of Federal Linguists and was president for four years. A lot of the members were Russian speaking.
Q – What kind of activities did the organization do?
A – We did professional programs on how to be a good translator. We were at first called the Society of Federal Translators, but we changed our name to be more inclusive.
Q – Did you belong to other professional organizations?
A – I was a member of the DC Library Association and was president of that from 1980 to 1981. I also am a member of the AARP, the Ward Circle Chapter. I was also president of that. They meet at Metropolitan Methodist Church at Nebraska Avenue. It meets the 3rd Monday of the month.
Q – Anything else you want to say about your life and interests?
A – I taught English as a second language at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville. It was a volunteer activity. I also like playing bridge. I played for many years at the Chevy Chase Community Center, but they no longer have that program. Now I play once a week at Friendship Terrace.
I have a list of some of my publications. I wrote articles about the Soviet Navy in the 1960s. I did library surveys and prepared documents for the Education Resources Information Center. I did a number of articles on translating, technical writing, accounts of professional meetings, and developments in the library field. I taught translation techniques, cataloging for libraries, and according to this write-up that was done in 1989, some people considered me the “perennial” librarian.
I was the first recipient of the DC Library Association’s Distinguished Service Award. I founded the Government Documents interest group and served as its chair for many years. I worked on the DC Library Association Planning Committee for the 1982 Regional Joint Conference.
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