Howard Benjamin Austin was designated as the first Poet-Laureate of the State of Illinois 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 by 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. It can be serious and sensitive in one poem and full of humor in the next. Austin’s descendants recall how he typically composed his poetry “on the fly” and rarely edited the verses after they had been written.

Howard Benjamin Austin was born on July 27, 1886 to Benjamin Franklin Austin and Julia Amanda (Biggs) Austin on the family farm near Blue Mound, IL. He was one of 7 children raised on the farm. (Blue Mound is in Macon County but the farm property was actually across the boundary into Christian County). Howard’s love of the family, of his roots and his boyhood home, never diminished through the years. Along with his sisters and brothers, they came together at least once a year at the family farm. Members of Howard’s family still lived on, maintained, and farmed the family property throughout Howard’s life. Boyhood memories of life on this farm in Central Illinois held a special place in Mr. Austin’s heart as it was a subject of much reflection in a number of poems. (Boyhood Memories, Looking Back)

As he grew into manhood, Howard became the teacher of rural children working as a schoolmaster in a variety of one-room schools (Madison and Washington schools in Blue Mound). In his late 20s Howard moved to Taylorville where he began working in the Christian County Clerks office. His growing affinity for numbers led him to a new job at the Farmer’s national Bank in Taylorville. Howard ‘s new career was abruptly halted in 1918, when he was called to serve his country in World War I. Assigned to the 307 Field Artillery, Mr. Austin served as a courier in the Argonne Forest in France, due in part to his capabilities working with horses. This dangerous duty included more than one brush with death, riding alone at night through the battlefield – sometimes finding himself behind enemy lines. Stirring poems such as “Sleep and Dream” and “My Boy Jim” are just a couple of examples of some of Mr. Austin’s more patriotic themes inspired by his war experiences.

Upon his return home in 1919, Howard returned to banking. Upon meeting and courting a comely young lady who also worked at the Pawnee bank where he was now the “executive head”, Howard married Violet May Arthur on July 23rd, 1921.

Of this couple the Pawnee Community Newspaper states:

“Though the principals in this happy nuptial event have been residents of Pawnee less than two years, both are socially prominent and held in affectionate esteem by a large circle of acquaintances. As cashier of the Pawnee State Bank the groom is an influential figure in the commercial life of the community. He is also active in public movements of every nature, figuring with particular prominence in musical circles.”

It was in Pawnee that the Austins began to raise a family. Betty Ruth was the first arrival (May 24, 1922), then Howard Robert (March 30, 1925), then William Roger (April 30, 1928). The family moved to Springfield where their last child Arthur Dean (July 9, 1929), was born. Three of their children survive today and reside in Illinois, and New York. The family was always one of Howard’s most continuing inspirations as is reflected in the volume of poetry dedicated to the family and the roles within. This type of poetry increased as Howard grew older and more reflective. It is not known if any of these private treasures have ever been shared in the public arena. The Poem “Till the Kids Come Home” is one example of the type of poems inspired during the Christmas season.

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. Countless newspaper articles of the day document the affection and esteem by which he was held in the Central Illinois community.

He was indeed a local public figure throughout his adult life by virtue not only of his poetry but also as teacher, banker, accountant and Chief Clerk of the Sangamon County Clerk’s office (During administration of Ray Stout). After running unsuccessfully against incumbent Robert G. Moore for the position of Circuit Clerk in the 1940s Austin shucked politics for good, returning back to accounting where he provided services at the Sangamon County Farm Bureau assisting farmers with their taxes and the financial issues associated with running the family farm. He later established the Austin Bookkeeping Service where he continued to work until his death.

Howard B. Austin, who was 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.

Illinois Roots

A life-long native of Illinois Howard Austin’s title as Illinois first Poet Laureate is further enhanced by the strong Illinois heritage associated with his ancestry. His grandfather William A. Austin and great-uncle Benjamin R. Austin are documented as being among the first group of settlers in Macon County Illinois between the years of 1825 and 1830. These two gentlemen were responsible for the laying out of the original town of Decatur designating it as the Macon County seat. Both men married daughters of Col. William Warnick, also an original Macon County settler and the first County Sheriff.

The Austin and Warnick families were quite prominent in Macon county and were close acquaintances of Abraham Lincoln who lived in close proximity during this time. William A. Austin was justice of the peace in the county for forty-two years, and Lincoln is said to have borrowed books from him. It is also said that Lincoln showed some attention to Mary (Polly) Warnick, daughter of William Warnick (The Lincolns the Hanks and Macon County, page 91). Ironically, much of the historical record documenting this relationship is found in the works of Illinois' second Poet Laureate Carl Sandburg in his biography of Abraham Lincoln.