Around the world in 80 years

Nov. 28, 2000

Jules Verne gave us the adventurous tale of traveling around the world in 80 days in boats, hot air balloons and automobiles. Herbert Howe, in contrast, figures that swimming around the globe has taken him nearly 80 years.

Howe, an emeritus professor of classics, says he's done enough laps in his lifetime to nearly equal the polar circumference of the earth, which is about 24,855 miles.

Howe, 88, has achieved this milestone through a lifetime of swimming. His father taught him to swim during World War I in his home state of Rhode Island. Since then, Howe has distinguished himself as an avid and exceptional swimmer.

He refers modestly to his swimming career at Harvard University, casually explaining that he "won some and lost some." A colleague tells a different story.

"He's a world class [swimmer] and has held many records," says Barry Powell, a professor of classics who has known Howe for 27 years.

Howe, who came to the University of Wisconsin 52 years ago, not only downplays his accomplishments in the pool but also the excitement of swimming.

"For spectators, swimming is the dullest damn sport there is," says Howe.

He recalls never again asking his wife, Eve, to watch him swim after the boredom she experienced during the first meet she attended.

But for the individual, swimming is a healthy and almost effortless sport, Howe says. "It's a total sensory deprivation," he says. "All you can do is count and float along with the mental effort of a jellyfish. That's all there is to it."

Howe's achievements extend beyond the swimming pool into academia. "He's one of the greatest teachers in the history of UW-Madison," says Powell. "He's an amazing man, an old-school gentleman and a great storyteller with a powerful sense of humor."

Over the years, Howe's experiences in swimming pools have ranged from racing against an Olympic swimmer to witnessing a mob of nude women take over the Red Gym pool in protest during the 1970s.

He remains decidedly old-fashioned in many ways - he doesn't own a car or a computer. But Howe has adapted to changes in the sport of swimming, including switching his stroke of choice from the breaststroke to modern freestyle.

He calculated his current distance through a combination of guesswork and careful cataloging. Prior to 1973, Howe did not keep close tabs on his distance so he had to rely on memory and estimations.

Howe says he is confident his estimate is fairly accurate. Assuming that his measurement so far is precise, had Howe actually begun swimming north from campus along the 89th meridian, a longitudinal line that passes 10 miles to the east of Madison, he has 200 miles to go, which would put him at Heyworth, Ill.

"I've gone an awful long way, at least, if not quickly," Howe says.