Howard Benjamin Austin was designated as the state of Illinois’ first Poet Laureate on January 14, 1936. A prolific poet, Mr. Austin was also an accountant by trade and was a schoolteacher for a short time. He was born on July 27, 1886 on the family farm near Blue Mound, IL, and died on April 1, 1962 at his home in Springfield, IL.
Austin’s ability to write poetry was widely recognized, in large part because of the speed with which he could accomplish it. For many years he was called upon to demonstrate his talents with a male quartet named the Pawnee Four. These singers were invited to events such as conventions or banquets, where after-dinner speakers were the norm. Howard, while listening intently to the speeches, would sit on the sidelines composing poetic lyrics, more often than not with amusing content or poking good-natured fun at the speaker or his organization. Immediately following the speaker, the quartet would take their places at the dais. As the lead singer, Howard would hold his just-completed lyrics out in front of the group while they sang and harmonized the words together. This was often considered to be a stunt, assuming words had been prepared long beforehand. Anyone that attended these events would be convinced otherwise as his piece would include a very detailed account of unpredictable events. Howard, the quartet, and his amazing "instant" poetry were popular for many decades.
One of Austin’s biggest fans in 1936 was then Governor Henry Horner. Having appeared with the governor on a number of programs, Mr. Austin made a significant impression one night at a Ladies of Sangamon County Democracy dinner. That night, the quartet sang a song written specifically by Mr. Austin entitled “Be It Resolved,” calling upon the bachelor governor to “pick out a handsome old maid and get himself a wife!” The one thing resolved for sure that night, as was declared by Governor Horner, was that Howard Austin would be designated as the State Poet Laureate. Soon after, an official certificate bearing the signatures of the governor and Secretary of State Edward J. Hughs and the seal of the state of Illinois were presented to Mr. Austin on Tuesday, January 14, 1936.
Aside from Mr. Austin’s accomplishments with the Pawnee Four, his poetry and lyrics covers a wide range of themes. Politics, patriotism, religion, human issues, current events and family were the core inspirations that would traditionally establish the canvass for his works. Austin’s descendants recall how he typically composed his poetry "on the fly" and rarely edited the verses after they had been written.
Howard Austin was not affiliated with literary circles nor did he ever pursue to have any of his works published and sold. His poetry was simply a natural expression of who and where he was. He was also a local public figure throughout his adult life by virtue of his work as teacher, banker, accountant, and Chief Clerk of the Sangamon County Clerk's office.
Howard B. Austin, always recognized with a cigar in his mouth, succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 75 in the family home in Springfield, IL on April 1, 1962, with his family in attendance.
For more information on Howard Austin, visit the family website devoted to his life and work: http://www.adaustin.com/HBA/
Howard Austin - Poems
"THE PASSING OF A FRIEND"
"'TIL THE KIDS COME HOME"