Lee Howery is as much a collector of stories about people as he is of antiques.
He tells with boyish glee of the time legendary Nashville shopkeeper Alice Weaver invited him to climb onto the roof of her Old Ferguson House during a performance of the Brown County Playhouse, which at the time took place in a tent next door.
Weaver had a gun loaded with blanks, Howery said. When a point came in the play when a person was shot, Weaver fired from her roof, and the “corpse” ran off the stage.
Weaver had a room full of caskets and loved to shock people any way she could. She had Howery construct a device to make the mannequins inside the caskets look like they were breathing.
Once, she fanned hysteria about mountain lions in the area by cutting off a collar from a fur coat and attaching it to her Great Dane which ran along her fence.
Howery’s first antique shop was in Weaver’s Antique Alley — basically a shed — for $12 a month, he said. Weaver raised the rent to $50 a month, when for $55, you could get a spot on the main street, he said.
“She would do anything to be mean sometimes,” he said.
Yet, “when my mother died, the biggest bouquet of flowers was from Alice.”
“I like people,” Howery said with a grin. “So, so many characters have lived here.”
And if guilt is ever by association, Howery would be one them.
He partied with Onya LaTour, “the first hippie who ever lived here,” known for her wild way of dressing and her affection for modern art. She’d have “lightning parties” on a fire tower on her roof, and “you’d stay up there all night and sleep on whatever you could find,” Howery said.
He was a confidant to Charlie Barnes, a nationally known watercolor artist who rubbed elbows with Jackson Pollack and Georgia O’Keefe. After Barnes suffered a stroke, he gave Howery a briefcase to hide in a secret compartment in Howery’s house.
“What’s in it?” Howery asked. Barnes drew a dollar sign.
“What do I do with it if you die?” Howery asked.
“Run like hell,” Barnes said.
When Barnes died, Howery took it to his lawyer instead. “It had $47,000 in it,” he said. “And I was buying him cigarettes.”
Howery admits to roller-skating down the hill into Nashville at least twice: forwards and backwards. In fact, more than one of his wild stories involves skating somewhere he shouldn’t have been.
Before he was the Lee of Lee’s Antiques, he ice-skated professionally and roller-skated semi-professionally.
His uncle owned a rink at Riverside Park in Indianapolis. While it was closed during dinner hours, Howery and his mother had the place to themselves. He started skating at about age 5.
Eventually he made his way to New York and auditioned for a big ice show there. “I flunked it,” he said.
He worked at a much smaller rink before being picked up by a touring company, which took him cross-country constantly, five shows per week.
When the ice show was closed for a few months, he found work as an extra actor/dancer on stage. He also did some modeling.
“When you’re alone by yourself someplace, you’d pick up anything just to make some money,” he said.
When World War II hit, Howery was drafted into the Army. He trained as a court stenographer, learning speedwriting and shorthand. He spent two years of wartime at Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky.
“I wanted to go to Germany so bad,” he said, but he was missing a couple of credits. “I just took the easiest thing I could find, and it wasn’t,” he said.
After the war he went back to skating, but that career soon tapered off.
“I just really got tired of it,” he said. “My father had died, and I went home and took my mother in with my grandmother, and I just was gone too much.”
He checked out a jobs clearinghouse and learned that he had almost enough credits to teach. He became an instructor at Indiana University, teaching merchandising and courses such as “the psychology of colors.”
What is that? “Just dumb things. It doesn’t mean a thing,” he said with a wave. “Like, red is an exciting color, and what does it do to your mind?”
Such knowledge led him to some interesting places. He was hired to coordinate the color schemes in several major airports.
For several years he was a cutting-edge “window trimmer” in major department stores in New York and other cities — an art now all but lost to other methods of advertising.
Working fountains, live doves, life-sized papier mache animals — “The wilder I went, the better they liked it,” he said.
He also designed displays for international hotels and gift shops on Caribbean islands, in Iceland and even on boats. “I hated it, because I got seasick,” he said.
He had discovered Brown County on the way to his IU interview.
“I knew so much about merchandising, I thought, if I had a shop here I could really make money. And I did,” he grinned.
For 58 years, he and fellow Army veteran Joe Rafferty ran a candy shop, a couple of gift shops and an antique shop.
Singer Liza Minnelli stopped by. So did pianist Liberace, who made use of Rafferty’s gold-leafing skills several times.
Howery still traveled a lot, and sometimes he and Rafferty shut down the shops and took their employees with them.
Sharing the wealth was a lesson he’d learned growing up in Indianapolis. His grandparents had taken him in, along with his younger brother and a cousin, when Howery was 10.
His grandfather worked at a gas company. He made $40 a week, and he’d give Howery five nickels of it.
The house was heated by coal. Someone started stealing a full bucket from their shed. From then on, his grandfather set a full one on the fence. “He said they probably had kids,” Howery said.
Howery inherited that house. The neighborhood had turned rough and he couldn’t leave his grandmother there, “so I built her a new house with everything in it — air-conditioning, everything, and I let her pick out everything. It wasn’t my taste, but I let her pick it. And that’s what I do with money.”
His home outside Nashville is one he and Rafferty built. Seven years after closing their last shop, and 13 years after Rafferty’s death, it is filled with an eccentric mix of antiques and memorabilia from a life really lived.
Howery still talks a wistfully about owning a shop. He has a hard time passing up bargains on items he knows have great value — and he laments that that knowledge seems to be fading.
“The market’s dropped now, a lot,” he said. “People don’t seem to know what these things are worth now. Young people don’t know.”
He crosses to the corner of his living room and pulls a white woolen shawl out of a round, handpainted box. LaTour, his lighting party friend, used to wear it as she wove. He can still see her with it draped across her shoulders, her long hair falling around her.
Every item has a story, as long as there are people to hear them and pass them on. His focus now is finding the right people to care for each one of them as he has.
Place of birth: Indianapolis
Parents: Joseph and Irene Howery. Was raised by his grandparents from age 10.
Sibling: The late Francis “Gene” Howery
Occupations: Antique shop owner, window trimmer, film developer, professional ice skater, model, advertising sketch artist, instructor in IU School of Education, Army stenographer. Attended Raybould School of Design in Chicago and the Herrin School of Art and Design in Indianapolis.