Weekly Local Biography

 Dr. Howard C. Graves Jr.


One of the more colourful members of the Chiang Mai society is Dr. Howard C. Graves Jr., a man who was to be a surgeon in operating theatres, but instead ended up treading the boards in repertory theatres! In his cream Lanna style top, phasin over the shoulder, jade bangles and rings, and flowing white hair, he is an imposing figure.

Howard was born in New York City, moving to the affluent Hyde Park area as his father’s electrical business flourished. He was also a very good student, but his direction was towards art, drama and theatre, rather than sport. He also knew his career direction. “I knew what I wanted to do most of my young life. I wanted to be a surgeon.”

To that end he went to college, preparing for the pre-med course, but there he suffered his first setback. “I made the fatal mistake of becoming more interested in extra-curricular activities, which resulted in grade points too low to enter medical school.” He explained further, “I was just having a very good time. There was a freedom there. I perhaps didn’t have the internal controls I should have had.”

With his surgical dream in tatters and Uncle Sam now insisting he line up for the draft, he enlisted in the army. The infantry and artillery were far from pre-med school, but the army sent him to officer’s school where he was commissioned in the Medical Service Corps to go to Korea. He was already packed and supervising supplies onto the troop ships when the war ended, eight days before his departure. With no war, Uncle Sam didn’t need him and he was discharged.

By this stage he had married a teacher and a friend who was running a private school suggested they join him. It was the best offer and he took it. He stayed there for three years and found that he began to enjoy teaching, so undertook formal training to complete a Masters degree in secondary education.

Now a qualified teacher he moved back to New York where he worked for a year, enjoying the experience thoroughly, before deciding that he should go for a doctorate in education. This took two and a half years, during which time his wife supported him in this endeavour by continuing working herself.

Now Dr. Howard he became an assistant principal and was assigned to three different high schools in the region. However, this side of teaching had its drawbacks. “The 60’s were a horrible period of time in schools, with discipline problems that were not there in the 50’s.” Since he was the assistant principal, the role he was thrust into was that of being the disciplinarian. For a man who was interested in the ‘finer’ things in life - art, theatre, drama, this was not a pleasant experience. “In my teenage years, respect and responsibility just came naturally. Sadly that had all gone in the 60’s in the secondary high schools.”

His answer to that was to ask for a transfer within the education department, going to an elementary school, even though he was really overqualified for the junior year schools. “I did not want to go back to secondary high schools. They were horrible people!”

He took over as principal of a small school and thoroughly enjoyed teaching again in a period where ‘innovation’ was the buzzword. Dr. Howard could let his artistic side come forward to allow the children to explore the world through theatre and art as well as the usual three R’s.

However, this also was to herald a black period in his life. His wife developed cancer which spread throughout her system. Life became work combined with endless trips to hospitals while looking after their young son at the same time. His wife eventually died and life was forever changed for Dr. Howard.

Again he applied to the education department for a posting with reduced responsibility, now that he was a sole parent, and he was rewarded with being put in charge of presenting programmes for very highly gifted children. These were not the “horrible” teenagers, and gave him a chance to create something worthwhile for young lives while rebuilding his own life.

The next step in the rebuilding came in the form of an invitation to teach in Singapore, from an administrator who had worked previously for Dr. Howard in the US. The concept excited him, a complete break away, even though he admitted, “I had to look Singapore up in an atlas as I didn’t know exactly where it was!”

Singapore was enjoyable, and it offered him a chance to really get into the business of the theatre as well, from Shakespeare to musicals and even pantomime, where he was thrilled to be offered the part of the “Dame” (a part always played by a man in traditional pantomime). “It was a trip into the ridiculous!” he said, waving his arms expressively.

The Thailand connection also happened at this time, as Dr. Howard would come to Pattaya to sit on the beach and learn his lines, and then return to Singapore for the rehearsals, where he would have fun parading through the streets in such unlikely dress as a Dracula costume. That one was just a little over the top for Singapore and he was politely escorted out of a hotel as he was scaring the guests!

However, teaching was not over either. He was invited to Indonesia, but this was not a happy tenure and he was pleased to leave in 1987 and retired, coming back originally to Pattaya, but leaving in 1990. “I had seen more cabaret shows in Pattaya than anyone else,” and came to Chiang Mai where he is now settled, despite six changes of address!

He is here for good, “I expect to be cremated in Chiang Mai,” he said with a beaming grin and another flourish of the hands. It was a fun interview for us both.