In the dark days of mental health care when institutionalization and electro-shock treatment were the norm, a pastor in the seaside town of Kennebunkport recognized an unmet need. Rev. Robert Howes, now of Kennebunk, regularly ministered to his parishioners of South Congregational Church when they were dealing with mental and emotional stress. However, he often encountered folks with more serious mental illnesses who he felt should be assisted by professionals. But in the 1960s there was nowhere to turn.

Thanks to his leadership on the issue, Rev. Howes helped found the Community Child and Family Guidance Association in 1963, which morphed into York County Couseling Services in 1971 and finally Counseling Services Inc. in 1991. On Thursday night at CSI’s headquarters in Saco, Rev. Howes was honored at a fabulous lawn party where he was presented with the first Rev. Robert M. Howes Founder Award.

“No one could be more surprised than me,” Rev. Howes told me during the party, as a steady stream of well-wishers came by for a hug or a handshake and a word of congratulations. “I had no idea something I participated in 50 years ago was still significant to people today.”

Even though more than 200 of those people were gathered in the humid summer heat to thank him for his vision, Rev. Howes was quick to point out the contributions of others. In particular, he cited Dr. Linwood Brown, who headed Sweetser Children’s Home at the time and was a trusted counseling resource for the local clerical community and an instrumental force in helping found the community mental health agency.

But everyone else at the party wanted to talk about Rev. Howes.

“One of the things I remember about Bob is he was always available to help debrief the local EMTs” about the trauma they witnessed on the job, said Jeff Fletcher, who is a member of South Congregational Church.

Fletcher also recalled that when he and his wife moved to the area in 1974 and were visiting local churches, Rev. Howes was the only pastor to make a follow-up visit to their home.

“It’s people like him who give you that sense of belonging,” Fletcher said.

Rev. Charles Whiston, the current pastor of South Congregational Church, added that Rev. Howes “recognized that he and the church had a responsibility to the wider community.”

This responsibility touched many people, including Rebecca Eaton, who is an Emmy-award-winning producer of “Masterpiece Theater” in Boston, but spends as much time as she can at her family’s summer home in Kennebunk.

She and her husband were married by Rev. Howes, who also officiated at the funerals of both of her parents.

“The whole idea he started was visionary, as something a community should do and not just leave to the minister,” Eaton said.

Tom Chappell, who is well-known in Maine for co-founding Tom’s of Maine with his wife, Kate Chappell (who couldn’t make it to the party because she was on Monhegan Island), said he’s known Rev. Howes since the late ’60s.

Chappell recalled that it was Rev. Howes who encouraged him to pursue a degree at Harvard Divinity School, which is an experience Chappell credits with shaping his ideas about business ethics.

“He made a huge impact on my life,” Chappell said. “He’s very affirming when people are searching for themselves or taking the initiative to try something new. He’s there to listen or give a word of counsel or connect you with a key person.”

Retired four-star general and former Biddeford mayor Wallace Nutting joined the CSI board a year and half ago with a desire to help people dealing with substance abuse. It’s an issue near to his heart after he witnessed the effects of substance abuse on military personnel during the Vietnam War.

Nutting was introduced to Rev. Howes through his work with CSI.

“He was one of the visionary citizens who acknowledged what had to be done,” Nutting said.

“He’s a really wonderful person in so many ways,” agreed Dr. Vernon Moore. “I’ve been here 18 years and as soon as I got to Kennebunkport I began to hear about Bob Howes.”

Moore, who is the president of CSI’s board and a professor of social work at the University of New England, recalled that at a former job in the 1970s his office was housed in a room previously used to deliver electro-shocks to patients — a treatment later shown to induce brain damage.

“Mental health care didn’t start to improve until people like Bob Howes realized it needs to come from the community and not the hospital,” Dr. Moore said.

Today CSI has grown to an organization with 350 employees serving more than 7,000 adults, children and families. As Rev. Howes pointed out, “The need for mental health services is present in every socio-economic level of our society.”

In her remarks to the assembled crowd, CSI’s CEO Jeannine Lepitre summed up the sentiment of the evening when she said: “From one small seed we grew a mighty oak and we owe that to Bob Howes.” 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]