SOUTH PORTLAND – Ralph D. Howard, a longtime resident of South Portland who served as mayor and was well-known for his devotion to the community, died Sunday at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

Mr. Howard had been ill with Parkinson’s disease for a long time. He was 78.

A well-respected member of South Portland, Mr. Howard served on the city’s Board of Education and City Council for several years — including three years as its mayor.

“He did love the city of South Portland,” said his wife, Paula “Jane” Howard. “He thought he could do something to help, and I think he did.”

Born in the western Maine town of Mexico, Mr. Howard graduated from Mexico High School in 1950. He attended the University of Maine in Orono, completing three years of his education before he left in the mid-1950s to serve in the U.S. Army, his family said.

Mr. Howard’s patriotism carried over into his adult life. His wife said he always flew the American flag on a pole in front of their home, provided it wasn’t too windy or was raining.

“He liked to have his flag out on most days,” his wife said.

They were married in 1954 and moved to South Portland, where they raised their five children.

Mr. Howard worked at Blue Cross/Blue Shield — now known as Anthem — for 33 years as a data processing operations director.

The Howards lived on Chase Street, in Willard Square, for 40 years. They moved to Blueberry Drive about 10 years ago.

He served as president of South Portland National Little League Baseball and founded the girls’ South Portland National Little League softball program, which still exists today.

Mr. Howard loved spending time with his family. He tried to attend all of his children’s school, athletic and music events, and he enjoyed spending summers with his family at their camp on Roxbury Pond.

“Family was the most important thing to him,” his wife said.

In the 1980s, he was elected to South Portland’s School Board, serving for more than three years, including one term as the board’s chairman.

“He always felt it was important to give back to the community,” said daughter Donna Clark of South Portland. “And he wanted to make sure that everyone’s child had a good education.”

After serving on the School Board, Mr. Howard ran for City Council. He was elected in 1987.

His daughter said Mr. Howard quickly developed a reputation as a fair-minded, diplomatic and honest city leader.

“He really tried hard to listen to both sides of a story,” his daughter said. “There were a lot of strong feelings back then, especially over taxes. But he always tried to be fair. He wanted everyone’s voice to be heard.”

Linda Cohen served as South Portland’s city clerk from 1989 to 2001. She admired Howard, who served the city because he wanted to, not because of ego or personal ambition, she said.

“He was very well-respected. He didn’t say a lot, but when he spoke, you knew exactly where he was coming from,” Cohen said.

Cohen remembers her first City Council meeting. She was asked to fill in for the city clerk. She was understandably nervous, but Howard reassured her, saying, “‘It’s a piece of cake. You’ll do fine.’ You always felt at ease knowing Ralph was in charge.”

Mr. Howard served for nine years on the City Council, including three terms as mayor.

He was a member of the First Congregational Church on Meetinghouse Hill, where he served as deacon and usher, for 50 years.

In his retirement years, Mr. Howard worked part time at Drillen Hardware and volunteered at Skillin School, South Portland High School, the Veterans Home, Ronald McDonald House and Meals on Wheels. He mentored students at Skillin School and at the high school.

His family said he had a wonderful sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. He also was described as a man of few words, but what he said was meaningful and to the point.

“He connected with you when you looked at him. You could tell he cared about you,” his daughter said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be reached at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]