Impact of Giving: Dr. Joe Howell

Raise a Glass to a Remarkable Volunteer

Dr. Joe Howell, a mathematician and philosopher by study and genial conversationalist by nature, put forth his reasons for supporting the MSU Billings Foundation Wine & Food Festival in four simple parts.

“Sponsorship of an event, like Daring Pairing or Wine Studies, is basically a scholarship contribution in disguise. That is important and makes you feel good,” he asserted. “Secondly, you are recognized for that. So all of your friends know you’ve done something important. You’re entitled to feel good and maybe they feel good being with you.”

Thirdly, he said, you get to buy tickets early. Given the popularity of the events, that is a significant perk.

“And fourthly,” said Joe, “it’s tax deductible. Sponsorship is a wonderful way to show support for the Wine & Food Festival, for the University, and for students. It does a lot of good!”

It’s a good pitch, and it should be given Joe has had 25 years to hone his talking points as one of the Festival’s longest-standing volunteers. To be fair, the former Dean feels a deep passion for the University that has shaped so much his life.

Joe and Jane Howell moved to Billings in 1980 when Joe began teaching in the Eastern Montana College Math Department. Jane began working in the campus library in 1982.

“We were looking to go someplace smaller and with a better climate, back to the mountains,” said Joe. “It was location as much as everything, but also the people. We really liked the people when we got to Billings.”

Joe, who holds a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Denver, earned his Bachelor’s in math and philosophy from the University of Bristol in England and was chair of the math department from 1984 until his retirement in 2008, taking two years off to serve as the acting Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. A native Brit, Jane received her master’s in library science from the University of Denver and her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Leeds in England and was the director of library services at Montana State University Billings from 1990 until her retirement in 2010.

A decade into the Howells’ tenure at Eastern Montana College, Jane became instrumental in what is now known as the Wine & Food Festival. Like today, the event’s object was to support academic access and excellence.

“What was needed was some library money. Jane, as director of the library, was ahead of her time. Our library was the first in the state to get online and form a consortium of libraries that allowed readers to search online – this was OMNI (Outreach Montana: Networked Information). The libraries didn’t overlap and this really expanded everything. Automation was a new thing and they needed some money for that,” recounted Joe.

“The first festival was not nearly what we have today. It was basically a wine tasting, dinner, and an auction all done in the tent,” Joe recalled. That first event was staffed by Foundation and library volunteers. “When the Foundation settled on a Wine Festival as its fundraiser, Bruce Carpenter, the president of the college at the time, got all of his friends, members of an organization for state university presidents, to provide a bottle of wine produced in their state at the time,” explained Joe. Event organizers drew a map of the United States on a piece of plywood on which they displayed each bottle in its home state.

“That was an auction item Saturday night. The buyer donated it back and we auctioned it again the next year,” said Joe. “Jane took the proceeds Friday and Saturday night in a metal box in the back of the campus police car to the night depository. Her children thought that was great that they took Mom in the cop car.”

And so began the Jeanette Tilley Endowment for Library Excellence. Launched by Jane’s work with individual donors and many fundraisers over the years, this endowed fund was established to provide a perpetual source of financial support for the library, now totaling over $1.3 million as of fiscal year 2015-2016. More recently, this endowment has helped mitigate the lack of appropriate levels of state funding for university libraries.

The initial success of the Wine & Food Festival also set the tone in the years that followed – dedicated volunteers and patrons supporting students through Billings’ finest event.

From the start, Joe was a fervent supporter of the Festival, but not an official part of the planning. That changed in the third year when Jane and Joe became involved in the Festival’s wine store. It flourished under their management until 2007 when the couple stepped up to co-chair the event, initiating two years of record fundraising. “But I hope somebody breaks that record soon,” he said.

Jane conceived and managed the publication of the festival’s 15th Anniversary Cookbook in 2007, and Joe has chaired the festival’s live auction committee for several years now. Jane died in 2012, and Joe has continued the work they both held dear.

“I have a lot of friends connected with the Wine & Food Festival, so for me it’s keeping on with my life. I worked at MSU Billings for 28 years as a faculty member and dean. I have a commitment to the school,” said Joe.

The MSU Billings Foundation offers a variety of giving vehicles. The Wine & Food Festival is Joe’s preferred method.

“It’s enjoyable to buy something at the auction, so I set some discretionary money aside in my budget,” explained Joe. “I can support the various events as a sponsor – that’s one way to give – and all that money is almost a direct scholarship contribution. If I didn’t give money through the auction, I’d probably directly contribute to the Jane L. Howell Memorial Scholarship Endowment or as a general gift. But I usually manage to ‘spend’ my philanthropic funds at the Festival.”

These days, much-needed scholarship support is the goal of classes and tastings spanning a week and culminating in a formal dinner Saturday night.

“I’ve spent most of my life, in one way or another, in education. Public higher education has gotten expensive, in part because states have cut back in their support. So more and more of the cost falls on the students. Even if the student lives at home, it’s still a big expense,” said Joe. “It’s a lot more expensive nowadays than it used to be to go to school, and it’s a lot more important and a lot more people need go to school than they used to. The economy has changed. It’s difficult to get a high-paying career-type job without some form of further education.”

And scholarships make accessing an excellent education possible. MSU Billings also attracts a mix of students with unique needs.

“Most of the students – not all – but most of the students we see here are place-bound. It could be a non-traditional student whose spouse is employed here. It could be a first-generation college student who doesn’t have the family funds to go to Missoula or Bozeman and needs to stay at home and work,” explained Joe. “We are the urban university of Montana. We are the largest county and the largest city in the state. We are an important institution. Having that sort of resource in this community is tremendously important, not just for the economy and for employers, but for the people who live here.”

Take it from someone who has a long view of MSU Billings and Wine & Food Festival: The ticket price is money well spent.

The Wine & Food Festival is a benefit for the Montana State University Billings Foundation and will take place May 15-20, 2017. Be part of the 25th anniversary event by purchasing tickets, volunteering, or donating to the Wine & Food Festival. Please contact the MSU Billings Foundation at 406.657.2244, 888.430.6782, or

Jane and Dr. Joe Howell

Jane and Dr. Joe Howell