Howard E. Wilkening, PhD

Entrepreneur, Psychologist, Oenologist, Professor, Friend

As the earth speeds around the sun it finds a specific position where spring begins.  Leaves pop out to cover nude trees, hiding their winter embarrassment.  Summer arrives and the earth finds a position in its orbit that alerts the leaves to dress up their owners in fall finery.  The rotation continues until another complete year has come and gone.

What sort of timing or earth position causes two people to meet and form friendships?  Maybe it is entirely a random event, not related to the sun at all, or its position in space.  But it can’t always be accidental, can it?  Astrologers can no doubt find a time and a reason.  Maybe there is a mechanism that, as people connect with each other every hour all day long, determines that these few shall become friends but not those many.

Howard interviewed me for an executive position with a manufacturing company he represented.  I think he was supposed to weed me out, but we became friends instead.  This was in spite of the dumb things I am capable of saying.  It was very unprofessional for me to walk into Howard’s office for the first time and exclaim, “By golly, you look just like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr!”  But I did.  And he did look like Fairbanks.

“Yeah, I hear that a lot,” Howard replied.

I have no idea why Howard and I became friends.  We did not have a great deal in common.  He was a psychologist and I did not care for psychology.  He was a Liberal and I am Conservative.  He was a Yankee and I am a Southerner.  He was concerned with the welfare of certain individuals in our company while I was concerned with the survival of the organization.  He knew where the bodies were buried and I didn’t care about the past.

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Yet my admiration for Howard grew over the years.  We began to spend time together off the job site as he and his wife Laura would have my wife Evie and me spend a weekend at their ranch at Los Olivos, California.  Or on rare occasions they would stop by our house in Arcadia for the night.

Howard was usually upbeat and pleasant, but I never once heard him tell a joke.  Sometimes as we worked on projects together, Howard would tell me about his past.  He was twenty-two or three years older than I, about one generation.  I remembered what he told me and eventually wrote those things down.  Some of them appeared in a book I wrote called Ploughshares into Swords. Many did not.

Born in New York City fifteen days before Christmas, 1909, Howard was a big kid.  (He had three kidneys, so he had to have room for all of them.) He did well in school and exhibited a great deal of brain power.  He should have, since he had an IQ that crowded the upper ranges.  Showing some real promise, Howard went to New York University, graduating in 1933 in the early stages of the Great Depression.  The son of a German immigrant who had a hardware store in New York, Howard continued with his education, getting an MA at the University of Colorado in 1939.  He ended his formal education with a PhD in psychology from New York University in 1941.

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This was a good time for psychologists; psychology was just coming into its own.  People wanted to try out the new “science” in various ways.   Novels, plays, paintings and movies were deluged with heavy-handed, half-baked and unproven psychological ideas.  Psychology’s novelty probably did not wear off until the late 1970’s.  Even today writers have to resist the desire to psychoanalyze their characters.   (Those who know little psychology seem to analyze the most.)

Jobs were scarce in the early 1930’s, but Howard got a political one.  He was appointed to the staff of the mayor of New York City.  The famous mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, was described as “irascible, energetic and charismatic.”  He was mayor from 1934 to 1945.  Howard said LaGuardia was a genius who could speak at least six languages and throw in many words from several other languages.  This was a valuable gift for a politician in New York City.

Howard claimed that he got the Mayor to read the Sunday comics to New York’s kids on the radio during a newspaper strike.  I am not sure who was responsible, but I am sure the Mayor looked up to Howard, who was six feet, one or two inches tall.  Mr. Mayor was only about five feet tall.

While on the staff of the mayor’s office, Howard met Mary Louise Kohler from St. Louis, who was living in New York City, doing social work of some kind.  They were a handsome couple who were married on the day after Christmas in 1936.  Soon their first child, Barbara, was born and Howard landed a teaching job at Purdue University.  In 1938 the new family moved to West LaFayette, Indiana, where Howard taught psychology and coached the track team.  He also taught a course on marriage and the family.   Howard told me the department head asked Howard not to use any dirty words such as penis and vagina.

An associate of Howard’s shared the lectern at appropriate times.  She was Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, the mother of twelve children made famous by the book and movie Cheaper by the Dozen. Howard confided to me that the course was really a pioneering sex education class whose name was altered so that parents would not become outraged.  It was a very popular course.

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In 1939 the Wilkening’s son Greg was born, followed by Peter and Carol.  Then WWII began.  Howard and his family moved to northern California in 1943, where he was appointed manager of a veteran’s housing installation (RCA Vallejo Housing Authority).  Managing the group was very far from Howard’s area of expertise, but it is an example of his willingness to experiment and not be “pigeon-holed” as a one-skill person.

It was probably around this time that Howard was paid a visit by two menacing thugs.  Getting him off to one side where they could not be overheard, they told Howard that he was going to testify in a trial on behalf of a criminal named Benjamin (Bugsy) Seigel.  Howard was to tell the jury that Seigel was insane when he murdered his brother-in-law.  Howard gulped and told the thugs that he didn’t know Seigel and could not testify.  One of the thugs said, “Ya wanna live, don’t ya?  And yer family?”

Howard sweated out the trial and Seigel was acquitted without his help.  Seigel went on to construct a famous hotel and casino in Las Vegas.  Several years later Seigel was murdered, apparently by one of his own collection of hoodlums.  However, Las Vegas flourished.

It must have been 1944 when Howard got a call from President Roosevelt, asking him to help establish a sculptor friend named Beniamino ‘Benny’ Bufano.  Research shows that Benny knew Roosevelt as far back as 1926.  Howard not only helped Benny, he even became Benny’s agent.  It is not clear how Howard knew FDR, who did not need an agent.

In 1944 Howard was on the federal government payroll as an “operations analyst” at Muroc (Edwards Air Force Base) in California.  He worked for General Curtis LeMay, who directed Howard to fly with B-29 bomber crews until he had selected ten crews who worked well together in an emergency and could handle tough assignments.  When he had chosen three crews, LeMay asked him if he were through with the assignment.  “I have three crews, General,” Howard replied.

In his typical pose with a cigar hanging out his mouth, LeMay yelled and swore at Howard and told him to get busy and finish the project.  Howard told me, “Curtis LeMay was a thug.”  But he got ten crews together, even though he didn’t know the reason.  His third choice flew the plane Enola Gay which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.  Howard was sorry for his part in the bombing, but he was not told before hand.  The next year Howard got a citation for the work he had done at Muroc.

Muroc was not all bad news.  While there, Howard got to know such habitués as Pancho Barnes, the socialite turned madam, and Chuck Yeager, the man who was first to fly faster than the speed of sound.  He did not say how well he knew each of these people, but knowing Howard I can estimate that it was only well enough to get by, and not an intimate relationship.  Especially with Barnes.

Right after the war, Howard taught psychology at USC.  He said one of his courses was designed to help doctors establish a working relationship with their patients.  He was not popular with aspiring medical doctors, but his course was a requirement and they had to get a passing grade in it.

Veterans were flooding college campuses in 1948 when Howard joined Cal State at Los Angeles as a professor of psychology.  In 1952 he supplemented his income by consulting for the Bobrick Corporation, a manufacturing company in North Hollywood. He served two years as director of the mental hygiene clinic of Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital.  By 1972 Howard’s biography on Benny Bufano was published.  He wrote two other books in the field of psychology.  He served as head psychologist for 10 years at the Los Angeles Child Guidance Clinic, and in 1974 he retired from Cal State LA, having at that time the longest tenure of any professor with 26 years.

During these years Howard also worked for Philip K. Wrigley and his chewing gum/baseball corporations.  Wrigley managed to help Howard move to Catalina Island to live so that Howard was not far away from the Wrigley mansion.  Although Howard would not say what he did for Wrigley, it seems reasonable to say that someone in the Wrigley family needed psychological assistance from time to time.

While Howard would counsel people occasionally, he seemed to have little interest in clinical psychology.  He was far more interested in psychometrics, the science of measuring sensory perception.  And he enjoyed teaching.  Also during these years, Howard developed skills for hiring executives.  He did not like or use standard psychological tests, but developed his own methods and was quite good.  Generally, psychologists were very good at telling one-legged men that they should not try careers in baseball.  In less obvious situations, some studies showed they were right about fifty per cent of the time (the same as if a personnel clerk had simply flipped a coin).  Howard was far more successful with his evaluations.  There is no doubt that Wrigley used Howard’s talents in the hiring area.

Philip Wrigley died in 1977, ending Howard’s relationship to that family and set of corporations. Howard had rebuilt a Spanish revival house overlooking the bay on Catalina Island and had started on another lot.  Rebuilding and selling worn-down houses was one of his many entrepreneurial efforts.  Because he lived so far away, it was his practice to go ashore to the mainland and work three to four days at his various positions, then return to the Island.

Howard’s wife Mary became ill and died in 1982.

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The following year when he was about seventy-three, Howard married Laura Clark DeLacy, an artist the Wilkenings had known for some time.  The newlyweds  purchased a twenty acre ranch at Los Olivos above Santa Barbara, California.  Los Olivos  was a delightful place populated with twenty-six very good wineries and many movie and TV personalities.  Howard and Laura took an interest in continuing with the vineyard on the property, and Howard was one of four men who established a winery which had the label Byron.  It produced very good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines.  It is not generally known, but the Santa Ynez valley area where Howard and Laura lived, often sold many tons of grapes to wineries at Napa and Simi valleys.   For some reason, the wine makers in those places said very little about obtaining grapes outside their own valleys.

On the side Howard established a wine importing business.  He was ahead of his time; wine imports from Australia, Chile and other countries have done well in America.  He often gave lectures to faculty groups on oenology, the science of wine making.  Howard was an entrepreneur at heart.  He had many side activities going all his life.

It was about 1993 that the founders of Byron sold their winery to Robert Mondavi.  It was very difficult for the aging owners to keep it going.  They met with and liked Mr. Mondavi and were relieved that he would buy the winery.  They were concerned that potential Japanese buyers, who were investing heavily in the area, would take over the business.

Howard, who had never had a serious illness in his life, suddenly became ill, suffering a stroke.   He told me that the stroke, which seemed to an observer to have little effect, reduced his IQ to 140 (“where we mere mortals live,” I kidded him).  His curiosity led him to work with another psychologist to get an understanding of his limitations.  He was curious about how certain processes worked in the human brain.  He found that the stroke  reduced his ability to work with items in a series, such as lines of computer code.  With time to spare, he began work on an interesting novel which we discussed from time to time.

Howard and Laura seemed good for each other.  It was a joy to visit with them and walk the ranch and discuss the woes of growing truly fine grapes.  But it was not to last.  Howard had a final stroke and died on October 19, 1995, still at the ranch he loved so well.  He was eighty-five years old, leaving many friends behind.  Howard was honest, intelligent, wise, and humble.  No wonder we miss him.

And the earth still takes a yearly spin in its prescribed orbit, hardly aware that one of its grander children is no longer wandering among the grape vines in Los Olivos, worrying about thieving birds and admiring the unusual soil that permits such fat, delicious grapes to thrive in the warm glow of the sun.

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