From The Sidelines: Miner and educator, artist and coach, Howard touched thousands of lives


Bob Howard is pictured with his grandaughters Peyton Lunsford and Taylor Lunsford

By John Henson, Managing Editor

It’s been almost 40 years since I first met Bob Howard on the road that circles Catrons Valley, just across the railroad tracks from his house.
Fittingly enough, Bob was finishing a run around the block when he was introduced by my cousin, Garry, as we prepared to jog a few blocks. I had no idea at the time, but Bob would soon become synonymous with running in my mind, only a couple of years before he started a cross country program at Evarts High School that soon became a powerhouse in eastern Kentucky, even without a course or a track.
As I look for words to describe him while collecting my thoughts a couple of hours after hearing the news that he had died, it’s clear Bob was so much more than a track and cross country coach. He was perhaps the first true Renaissance man I would ever meet, even though I had no idea at the time just how many hats Bob would/could wear in the decades to follow.
Bob was a coal miner turned teacher. He was an artist and a track/cross country coaching legend. He was the last principal at his beloved Evarts High School and the first principal at Harlan County High School, bringing together people from communities across Harlan County that many at the time swore could never be unified.
“I do not have a memory from Evarts High School without coach Howard in it,” Harlan County High School principal Kathy Napier said. “From being my teacher, my coach, a co-coach, a co-worker, my principal and his assistant principal, he taught me, he encouraged me, he advised me. His guidance and support are the reasons why I am where I am today. He was my true dear friend.”
Bob made numerous late-night stops at the Harlan Daily Enterprise after cross country or track meets in the 1980s and 1990s to report results and maybe even drop off a photo. He was both a standout coach and a one-man publicity crew who just needed a little help from me or one of our reporters to provide coverage for a program that went from non-existent to regional champions in a short time. While Bob had to be at school the next morning, even if he was stopping by the Enterprise at midnight or later, I could often sleep until noon the next day as part of a regular newspaper production schedule.
Others eventually took over coverage of cross country and track as I became editor, but Bob was as persistent and dependable as any coach I ever encountered. He was always great for a quote or three, and I coached my reporters that they would just have to ask Bob one question and he would tell them everything they could possibly need to know about his team and the meet. Bob didn’t mind having fun with his gift of gab, noting once at a school board meeting when he was named the first principal at HCHS that a friend once said of him: “If you ask Bob the time, he will tell you how the watch was made.”
Bob played a huge role in the early success of Harlan County High School, easing the transition to a new building for the students and teachers while turning Wildcats, Trojans and Redskins into Black Bears in what seemed like an overnight transition at the time. He even helped me make the change from journalist to educator, a transformation I never dreamed I would ever make in those years when we were reporter and coach. He came up with the idea to start an online school newspaper and helped fit my talents into something that would help the school and at least some of the students who had a passion for writing.
Five of Bob’s paintings are on my wall at HCHS and provide a history lesson every year as I point to Harlan County High School followed by James A. Cawood, Cumberland, Evarts and Harlan high schools as we discuss the changes in the county through the years, going from almost 80,000 people in the 1930s to 26,000 now and from 12 high schools in the early 1960s to two in the present day.
Bob maintained a connection to cross country and track at HCHS as one of his former star runners at Evarts, Ryan Vitatoe, went from being the coach of the Wildcats to serving as coach at Harlan County, building on the success he enjoyed in high school and taking it to another level on the 2A and 3A levels while helping over 40 student/athletes sign with colleges to continue their track/cross country careers.
One of the last to sign was Taylor Lunsford, Bob’s granddaughter and the daughter of Paige Howard Lunsford, one of Bob’s biggest stars at Evarts. Peyton Lunsford, a sophomore, is both a cross country and track standout who is already one of the best long-distance runners in HCHS history. Bob was at the signing ceremony and in the photo with his granddaughters, tying together three generations of track/cross country excellence in Harlan County.
“I am in shock and completely devastated by the passing of coach Howard. I feel so numb and sad for everyone who knew and loved him. He was a great coach and an even better human being. I owe so much of the good in my life to him,” Vitatoe said. “He was the first coach I had that believed in me and gave me a chance to succeed and flourish as an athlete. Because of that, I was afforded opportunities that changed my life for the better. I owe everything to the experience I had as his athlete and the doors it opened up for me. It’s important to say that I’m just one of many, many kids he helped pave the way for. I was very excited to come back home after college and work with him. It meant the world to me that he trusted me enough to take over what he had built at Evarts and then to give me the opportunity to coach at Harlan County High School. He was an absolute gem of a man.”

Tributes are all over the place in the last few hours since the news of Bob’s death. I think current HCHS teacher and Evarts graduate Robin Sanders summed it up very well — “We are all better people because of you.”
Bob Howard’s impact on Harlan County and its youth will carry on for decades.



County track coaches Leo Miller, Perky Bryant and Bob Howard are pictured with their daughters, all track standouts, before the 1990 season. The girls, from left, included Lucy Miller, Leann Bryant, Stacy Bryant and Paige Howard.
Bob Howard is pictured with one of his track teams at Evarts High School.