The Way We Were: The Howell Siblings

The Way We Were: The Howell Siblings
Sonja, Charlie and Una in their Swedish costumes. Sigrid kept her Swedish heritage alive by dressing up her children for public occasions at the holidays. Sonja and Una remember white gowns and crowns of real, lit candles for Friday Musicale’s Christmas program and beautiful, organdy dresses for May Fete in Boone Park.

Charles, Sonja, Una and John Howell grew up in what Sonja describes as a homogeneous Ortega neighborhood, but their family history is international, taking place in Brussels, Paris, Sweden, Jacksonville, and New Mexico. At the core of the siblings’ memories, however, is their mother’s Swedish heritage. Sigrid Jonsson Howell, described by family and friends as high-spirited and expressive, raised her children to honor their heritage and made sure they kept her family’s traditions alive.

Sigrid and Charlie’s house, where all the kids grew up
Sigrid and Charlie’s house, where all the kids grew up

Sigrid’s family’s American story started in the 1800s with the Dawson family. William Dawson and his wife, Anita Ball Dawson, were living in Jacksonville. They traveled to New Mexico to open an apothecary in the silver mining town of Kingston, now a ghost town. The family thinks that all five Dawson children were born in Kingston. Two of the children died of whooping cough. Sigrid’s mother, Olga, and her siblings, Una and William survived. When the silver ran out, the Dawson family returned to Jacksonville.

As many young ladies from well-to-do families did in those days, Olga and Una traveled with their brother William to Europe on a grand, four-year tour of all the great museums. In Brussels, she met a young businessman named Folke Doric Jonsonn from Gothenburg, Sweden. The two fell in love. Folke proposed to Olga in the Eiffel Tower, and they were married in a church in Paris. Folke took his bride back to Sweden to start their new life together. They had Sigrid and eight other children while living in Saro, Sweden, just outside of Gothenburg.

Una returned to Jacksonville after her European travels. She met and eloped with Robert D. Gordon, who became a member of the Duval County Board of County Commissioners in the 1950s. The couple lived in a beautiful riverfront home with a driveway made of original stones from England. The Ortega home still sits at the foot of Robert D. Gordon Road, which was named after him.

 All of the Jonsson children got a turn visiting their aunt and uncle in Jacksonville. In 1939, as a 22-year-old, Sigrid traveled from her hometown in Gothenburg, Sweden, to visit her Aunt Una Dawson in Jacksonville, Germany invaded Poland on Sept.1,1939. The international conflict kept Sigrid from returning to Sweden. That’s when her aunt took on the role of making sure she met an eligible man to marry.

Sigrid’s good friend, Betty Adams, wanted to fix her up with a guy named Charlie Howell. Sigrid asked if she could go out on a date with him, but Aunt Una wanted to know the name of the young man first. Sigrid couldn’t remember and gave Aunt Una the wrong first name. “Absolutely not!” was Aunt Una’s response, until the name was clarified as Charles Cook Howell, Jr. That “passed muster,” and the two had their first date at the Florida Yacht Club where Sigrid beat Charlie at ping-pong.

Three months after that first date, Charlie proposed marriage and Sigrid accepted. Six months later, on Dec. 14, 1940, they married. The Howells built a home on Arapahoe Avenue that Sigrid named Valhalla, which in Norse mythology means a splendid palace where slain warriors feasted and were made whole each evening so that they could fight again the next day. Sigrid and Charlie quickly filled the house with three children – Charlie in 1941, Sonja the next year and Una in 1944.

Una (Howell) Pardue remembers that, while her father was content to stop after three children, her mother wasn’t. She became pregnant with her fourth child, John. “She cheated on her cycle,” Una said. “When she told my dad she was pregnant again, he was brushing his teeth, and he nearly swallowed his toothbrush! While we were growing up, John was always known as The Golden Boy. We thought it was because he was spoiled rotten and everybody loves him, but it really was because of the extra money he cost the family.” Charlie had to add an additional bedroom and bath to the house after John was born.

The siblings blame their tendency to troublemaking – particularly that of Charlie and John – on their Swedish heritage. They cite the legend of the immortal Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, who, according to legend, butchered serpents, pillaged on an epic sailboat, and laughed in the face of death, becoming the modern ideal of the archetypal Viking warrior.

Sigrid and Charlie’s wedding portrait taken in the home of her Aunt Una and Uncle Bob Gordon. The couple was married in Riverside Presbyterian Church on Dec. 14, 1940.
Sigrid and Charlie’s wedding portrait taken in the home of her Aunt Una and Uncle Bob Gordon. The couple was married in Riverside Presbyterian Church on Dec. 14, 1940.

And yet, the sisters remember their time growing up in Ortega as safe and peaceful. “No one was rushed,” Sonja recalled. “And there were rarely cars in the streets. I remember our fathers dressing up in suits and ties and riding the city bus to go to work.”

“Our entire street was a veritable playground,” Una said. “At one time there were 21 children within five years of each other on the same block – Beards, Blooms and then the Avents when the Blooms moved out, McArthurs, Wiggins, Snyders and Harrises.” They played football, baseball, guns, “crawl ball” (like football but required crawling on your knees), “cement tag” (similar to crawl ball evidently), kick ball, roller skating and crack-the-whip. Sigrid would ring what became the infamous cow bell when it was time for her four children to come home.

The siblings have memories of their dad teaching them to parallel park by setting up garbage cans with brooms across them. They also recall high school sororities painting the streets of with the names of pledges, as well as Banner’s Food Store, Doc’s soda fountain and Carter’s Pharmacy, all of which never required more than a parent’s last name for purchasing something. Once they could drive, they would visit Pop’s on Lane Avenue for Frosties and the Moo for ice cream after ballet lessons with Thelma Baggs.

Una remembers the family taking a Timuquana Country Club bus to University of Florida football games in Gainesville. One time stands out in particular.

“Daddy invited Rick Caseres, the starting fullback for UF, who ended up being Rookie of the Year for the Chicago Bears, to dinner,” Una said. Rick accepted the offer, and he and her brother Charlie challenged all of the neighborhood kids to a game of football in the Avant’s yard and easily whopped them. “All of the kids loved it,” she said. “I was eight, and I had such a crush on Rick.”

The brothers were more mischievous. Throwing water balloons or eggs at passing cars and buses was a favorite activity. One of John’s friends, Billy Howell, lived on McGirts Boulevard near Ortega Elementary School. Billy and John were often placed together in school because their last names were the same.

“Billy like to come stay at my house because our neighborhood was such fun,” John said. “If we made the mistake of throwing water balloons at the cars of Navy guys we had to be prepared to run because sometimes they’d stop their cars and chase us. Billy liked to call out, ‘Look out John, they’re headed over to that bush you’re hiding behind!’” No honor among thieves or hooligans, it seems.

All four Howell siblings attended Ortega Elementary School. From there, Charlie went to The Bolles School, then Bishop Kenny and back to Bolles where he graduated as salutatorian. Sonja and Una both went to St. Matthews for seventh and eighth grade, Lakeshore for ninth grade and Robert E. Lee for high school.

John remembers that he and his best friend, Franklin Beard, rode their bikes to Ortega Elementary School. Then, John went to Bolles until Episcopal High School opened. A lot of his friends were going to Episcopal, so John followed them. He transferred to Fletcher High School for his senior year in 1970. He met his wife, Melody Parker at Vanderbilt University, married, practiced law with his dad for 12 years, moved to Coker Law for another 12 years, and then went to work with his brother and Mike O’Neal. Mike and John merged with Fernandez Trial Lawyers, where John is continuing to love the law and no longer has to worry about the business. Melody and he have four children.

Sonja, Una, John and Charlie dressed for Easter, 1961
Sonja, Una, John and Charlie dressed for Easter, 1961

Three of the four Howell siblings confess to being very competitive. “We like to fight, and we don’t like to lose,” John said. “Law was the only civilized form of combat that I could engage in, plus it was pretty much destined that I would end up a lawyer.” His father, Charles Howell II was a judge who became Chief Circuit Judge, then retired and went back into private practice. His grandfather was also an attorney.

John’s brother, Charles Cook Howell III, practiced law for 40 years and is now corporate counsel for the Scott McRae Automotive Group. After raising two children with his wife, Carolyn Hurst Howell, on Pine Street and Challen Avenue and a brief stint back in Ortega on Apache Avenue, Carolyn and he now live in Beau Rivage.

Una’s competitive spirit was found on the tennis court. “I love singles because I have only myself to depend on for winning,” she said. Una graduated from Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y. She taught at Stockton Elementary, San Jose Episcopal Day School, and St. Johns Country Day, and still tutors children. She and her husband, Dan Pardue, Jr., raised two children in a home at the other end of Arapahoe Avenue from where she grew up. The couple now lives in Timuquana Village Condominiums. Una is involved in lots of volunteer activities. Colonial Dames and playing hand-and-foot at cards every Friday at Timuquana Country Club are her biggest passions.

Sonja is the least competitive, according to the siblings. She is very active, however, and loves pickle ball. She went to Sweetbriar College and then to Emory University for a master’s in teaching. She taught French at Wolfson High School, but, unlike her siblings, she never wanted to stay in Jacksonville her whole life.

A recent photo of John, Una, Sonja and Charlie
A recent photo of John, Una, Sonja and Charlie

“I just knew there was more out there,” she said. She married Chris Baum, a Navy officer now retired, and they lived everywhere. “I had babies in Maine, Japan, and Harrisburg, Penn.,” she said. They finally settled in Albuquerque, N.M., and then later moved to Colorado Springs before finally moving to a home outside of Denver.

Sigrid and Charlie lived in the Arapahoe home until 1968, a year after Una was married. When their three older children were grown, and John could drive to school, they moved to their old beach home, which Sigrid had named Beaulieu sur Mer – French for “beautiful place by the sea,” – a which Charlie called the Sepia Citadel.

“My grandfather built the beach house in the early 1900s, and my parents had always wanted to live at the beach,” Una said. “We spent every summer there when we were growing up.”

Una remembers that her dad had names for everything and everyone – cars (Bucephalus Rex, Alexander the Great’s Horse), a rabbit (Tissaphernes, a Persian governor), children (Lord of the Manor, the Duck, Butch Jenkins, The Golden Boy), for example.

“We loved it when he came up with new names,” Una said. “My dad loved the classics. He even took law school notes in Latin just because he thought it was fun.”

From romantic proposals in France to silver mining adventures in New Mexico to Viking warriors in Scandinavia, the Howell family tells tales of an adventurous history, and yet, all roads have led back to Jacksonville with fondest memories of times growing up in their Valhalla home on Arapahoe in Ortega.

By Karen J. Rieley
Resident Community News

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