The Storyteller

Column By John Murray

Dave Howard after a book talk at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia

   One day before Abraham Lincoln was murdered at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C., a soldier from the Union Army entered the statehouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, and swiped one of the 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights. Robert E. Lee had already surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, but word traveled slow, and members of General Sherman’s army continued to plunder the South.

   At the end of the war the soldier returned to Ohio and sold the historic document for $5. The new owner was a young man, Charles Shotwell, from NYC, who eventually became a grain broker in Indianapolis.   The document hung in his office for years before getting moved to his family home, where it remained for almost 100 years. When his daughter was moved to a nursing home the document followed her there, and upon her death, the third generation of the Shotwell family to possess the document decided to sell it.

   In the 1990s two of Charles Shotwell’s granddaughters tried to sell the document for several million dollars, and eventually relinquished the prize for $200,000 to Woodbury antique dealer Wayne Pratt, and former Waterbury developer Bob Matthews. When the two men tried to flip the Bill of Rights for $5 million, they were snagged in an FBI sting. The stolen document was seized and returned to North Carolina.

  The astonishing 140-year-journey of the document is captured in riveting detail in “Lost Rights”, a book written by David Howard. The book has been called a “great beach read” by the New York Times, and has received glittering praise in reviews across the country. The book was released on July 2nd and Howard has been traveling through Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and North Carolina on a book tour. He is sweeping through Connecticut and the Northeast in the weeks and months ahead.

   Lost Rights is a terrific read for anyone interested in American history, antiques and the murky world of historic documents. The book is a must read for the residents of North Carolina, and of keen interest to the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives were touched by Wayne Pratt and Bob Matthews. Pratt, now deceased, was one of the most influential antique dealers in America, and often appeared on TV as an appraiser on the Antique Road Show.

   Matthews was a brash, loud, name-dropping, social climber who lavished politicians with donations and made sure everybody in Waterbury knew who he was. He bought a lot of buildings, used a helicopter to arrive at an event at the Mattatuck Museum, and when the real estate market caved he slipped out of Waterbury leaving the banks holding the bag. Matthews reinvented himself in New Haven where he leveraged a state backed loan to purchase an office building for $2 million, and later flipped it for $20 million.

   In the 1980s Matthews handed Waterbury Mayor Joe Santopietro $25,000 in cash in a brown paper bag, and ten years later was a central figure in the impeachment inquiry into Governor John Rowland. Pratt described Matthews as a Houdini for his ability to escape trouble. Matthews avoided legal consequences for his bribe to Santopietro, his monetary gifts to Rowland, and for his involvement in attempting to sell a stolen copy of the Bill of Rights. Matthews now lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, and appears to be in financial trouble again.

   Lost Rights is an absorbing read, but to me the most interesting character in the project isn’t Pratt or Matthews, it’s the writer, Dave Howard. I have known Dave for more than 20 years. I met Dave when we both worked at the Register-Citizen newspaper in Torrington, CT. Dave had just graduated from college and had a trial assignment to cover a lottery winner. An anonymous call to the newsroom informed us that a Torrington resident had just won a multi-million dollar jackpot, and our job was to confirm this, and bag an interview. Dave was the reporter and I was the photographer.

  The individual answered the door with a phone pressed to his ear saying, “I didn’t win. Why is everybody calling me?”. One of his “friends” had triggered the rumor as a goof, and the news had swept across Torrington in hours. I fired off a few pictures and Dave stayed behind to work an angle that would impress the editors. An hour later the phone rang in the darkroom, It was Dave. He hemmed and hawed and then blurted out that he had locked his keys inside his truck. Dave didn’t want the editors to know, and asked if I could help him, He eventually got a tow truck driver to open his door, wrote the story, and landed the job.

   The locked-keys-inside-the-car-routine became a standing joke between us. We both repeatedly found ourselves locking keys inside our cars, losing wallets and generally misplacing all our valuables. Dave eventually left the newspaper in 1992 to travel across the country, and I left to launch The Waterbury Observer in 1993 with Marty Begnal.

   While Marty and I were struggling to sell ads and produce our first issue, Dave pitched in and wrote our front page introduction to the community. In the second issue of the Observer Dave wrote an in-depth article about spending election day shadowing independent candidate for mayor, Andy Michaud.

   Dave then landed a paying job at the Torrington bureau of the Republican-American newspaper, and later transferred down to Waterbury where he covered the raucous 1995 mayoral battle between Mike Bergin, Philip Giordano and Jimmie Griffin. One year later Dave launched a freelance writing career and joined the Observer as an editor-at-large. He wrote one in-depth feature article per issue and cleaned up copy throughout the paper. This arrangement gave Dave the time needed to explore freelance assignments and he was soon writing for Connecticut Magazine and the New York Times.

   Dave’s stint at the Observer was extraordinary. We worked on massive projects documenting the history of the black community in Waterbury, explored the mysterious death of a homeless man and shared the story of Eileen Hosier and the 45 German Shepherd she housed inside her Lounsbury Street home. In “The Grip” we uncovered – big surprise – a direct link between politics and police in Waterbury.

   In 1997 we drove down to New Orleans to hurl ourselves into the riotous mix of Mardi Gras and Super Bowl, and nearly drummed the Observer out of business when I decided to run photographs of three topless women on Bourbon Street.

   But more significant than the stories and events we covered, Dave shared a farmhouse with me and my daughter Chelsea for almost two years. When you reduce life to it’s essence, what more powerful compliment can you give a man than to say your daughter and your dog love him.

   But soon a different kind of love swept into Dave’s life and he left the Observer to embark on a two month bike tour of Chile with his girlfriend, Ann. Afterwards, he followed his heart to NYC to live with Ann and continue his writing career. His first job was at Working Mother, followed by a stint at National Geographic Adventure Magazine. Dave continued to freelance and wrote a story for Travel and Leisure Magazine about an 80 mile hike we took through the jungles of Guatemala to interview archeologist Richard Hansen.

   In 2002 Dave and Ann were married in the Canadian Rockies and Chelsea and I traveled to Jasper, Alberta, to be the only witnesses of the ceremony. Two years later Dave and Ann had a beautiful baby boy and named him Vaughn. (He is the little red head sprinting in the picture above). Dave accepted a full-time position as an editor at Backpacker Magazine and the family settled in Emmaus, PA.

   Backpacker, Runner’s World, Bicycling and a host of other publications are owned by Rodale, and book publishing is one of the many components of the company. A former Rodale employee, Jeremy Katz, had left the company to become a literary agent and he was on the prowl for clients. Katz had read some of Dave’s articles and approached him to find out if he had any interest in writing a book. Of course he did, he said, but he wasn’t sure what the subject would be, or how to go about getting a book published. Jeremy brainstormed with Dave and they settled on the expansion of an article Dave had written for Connecticut Magazine about a stolen copy of the Bill of Rights.

   “Charlie Monagan, the editor at Connecticut Magazine, is the one who turned me on to the story,” Howard said. “I always knew there was a lot more to the subject, so with Jeremy’s help, I wrote a book proposal.”

   Katz took a few dozen copies of the proposal into NYC and delivered them to various publishing houses. Katz said if any of the editors wanted to meet Howard to discuss the book he would be in town for five days. Several editors brought Dave in for interviews and seven or eight publishing houses submitted a bid to publish Dave’s book. When the fog cleared, the winner of the book auction was Houghton-Mifflin, and Dave had one year to research and write the book.                 

   Dave used his journalism skills to investigate the story and travelled to North Carolina, Washington D.C., Ohio and Connecticut to probe for details. While in Waterbury Dave interviewed many of his old political contacts about their dealings with Bob Matthews, and sat down with Wayne Pratt several times in Woodbury to document his side of the story.

   The book was completed at about the same time the U.S. economy collapsed and the publication of Lost Rights was delayed for almost two years. Dave used the time wisely and re-worked the story several times to make the book tighter and cleaner. Now that it is out Lost Rights is making a splash. Dave was invited to address a gathering inside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and has been interviewed by Colin McEnroe on WNPR, the Martha Stewart Show, Larry Rifkin on WATR, and a talk he gave in Washington D.C. was filmed and will appear on CNN’s Booktalk in the next few weeks,

   I’ve known Dave for 20 years and we have wild, loose and creative conversations that can last for 12 hours straight. But through all our talks I never asked him about the actual mechanics of writing and how he mastered the nuances of the English language. When Dave was at the Observer he would write a 3000 word story without using spell check and not one word would be misspelled. Me? Without spell check I would be doing manual labor. So how did he do it? I called him up one night and asked him to share the story of how he developed as a writer.

   “I always loved books and my Mom would read to us every night. Where The Wild Things Are made a huge impression on me, as did Dr. Suess and Curious George. I used to wait for the baby sitters with a pile of books in my hand.”

   Then in 3rd grade at Andover Elementary School Dave said a teacher, Dave Caron, made a colossal impact on his life. “I was always making up stories with the Story Starter program and Mr. Caron saw something special in what I was doing. He encouraged me to take out a book anytime I wanted and to write. A good teacher notices when a kid has a gift and they encourage them along. I was lucky to have had several great teachers along the way.”

   In 10th grade another teacher intervened to push Dave even harder. “His name was Mr. Canny and he’d tell us over and over again that the first draft of anything was vomit on a page. He’d say there was material there to work with, but it needed to be cleaned up. Then he’d tell us to clean it up again, and again, and again. A teacher saying this to you at that age made a big impression on me.”

   And obviously Dave Howard learned his writing lessons well.

   The first draft of Lost Rights was vomit on a page, but he cut 35,000 words, re-organized the structure of the story and cleaned it up over and over again.

   Just like Mr. Canny taught him.