BANGOR, Maine — The life of Charlie Howard was celebrated and memorialized Sunday with song, dance, tears and flowers.
Howard, who could not swim, was killed on July 7, 1984, when three teenage boys tossed him into Kenduskeag Stream from the State Street bridge. He was 23.
About 60 people attended the 25th annual service in memory of Howard at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 120 Park St. After the service, they walked to the bridge to dedicate the newly installed memorial and to drop flowers into the stream.
“Listen. Listen. Listen to my heart’s song,” the group sang as they dropped colored carnations into the swiftly moving water. “I will never forget you. I will never forsake you.”
The Rev. Sue Davies of Bangor Theological Seminary led the dedication ceremony next to the stream. She said the granite memorial, which resembles a large round planter surrounded by a small flower garden, was the culmination of three years’ work with city officials.
Engraved on the stone on which the planter rests are the words: “May we, the citizens of Bangor, continue to change the world around us until hatred becomes peacemaking and ignorance becomes understanding.”
The Rev. Richard Forcier was a full-time student at Bangor Theological Seminary and the part-time pastor of the former Unitarian Church, where Howard worshipped, in the summer of 1984. He conducted the first memorial service for Howard.
Forcier, 55, now serves a congregation in Barre, Vt.
He returned to Bangor over the weekend to conduct the 25th memorial service. His sermon Sunday focused on why it is important to keep Howard’s memory alive despite some feelings in the community that the incident should not be brought up every year with a memorial service.
“Some say with all the progress that has been made, why keep bringing this sad, tragic tale back to life,” he said. “Marriage equality exists in some states now. Civil rights for the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, trangender] community exists now. Some television programs have normalized nonheterosexual relationships. Magazines aimed at the gay community have gone mainstream, and politicians who 25 years ago would not have uttered the word ‘gay,’ now court the GLBT vote.
“Others say with incidents of hatred and violence occurring all of the time locally and beyond, why concentrate on Charlie Howard?” he continued. “[They say] that it is an old story. We have heard it all before; there are new cases to confront. Besides, it’s an ugly stain on the fabric of our community that we would rather forget.”
But Howard’s story, Forcier said, should continue to be told because it sharpens our moral acuity and teaches:
— The dignity of difference.
— That affirming difference is difficult.
— That embracing difference is a spiritual project.
Lois Reed, 75, of Carmel knew Howard. She was a member of the Unitarian Church, now the Brick Church at the corner of Union and First streets. She spoke during Sunday’s service about the impact Howard’s death had on the small congregation, which merged in 1995 with the larger Universalist Church on Park Street.
“The community came together, and we worked hard,” she said. “We promised that Charlie Howard would not be forgotten and for 25 years, some of us have kept that promise.
“It is important because discrimination is still alive and well,” Reed said. “I still hear so-called jokes that are derogatory. Oh yes, homophobia still exists today, and we must continue to challenge it whenever we encounter it.”
Reed then sang a song she had written for the service to the tune of “Abraham, Martin & John,” written in 1968 by Dick Holler and first recorded by Dion. Reed’s version substituted the names Charlie Howard, Matthew Shepard and Harvey Milk for the names of Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
Shepard was a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, who was slain by two men in October 1998 because he was gay. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors. He and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor who had recently resigned, in November 1978.
The service and dedication Sunday were the culmination of a week of events to mark the 25th anniversary of Howard’s death. In addition to Sunday’s service, a concert, art exhibit and workshops were held.
“We think it went off very well,” Bill Carlin, 82, of Bangor said Sunday. Carlin and about a dozen others worked for about two years on a committee to plan the events.
“I wish this remembrance was more communitywide than just the UUs and Hammond Street [Congregational Church],” he said, referring to the churches that planned the activities. “It would be wonderful if all the churches in town held a remembrance service on an annual basis.”