‘Barefoot professor’ stands out
Daniel Howell encourages students to ‘go natural’ by defining the benefits of shoelessness
Tucked away in the Liberty University Science Hall, the office of Daniel Howell appears similar to any other college professor’s work space. A couch entices visitors to sit down, and family pictures are proudly displayed on bookshelves. As Howell sits at his desk on a sunny Tuesday morning, it is not the presence of something that makes him unique, but the absence of two things — his shoes.
Although Liberty’s “barefoot professor” wears shoes while teaching his biology and anatomy classes, a plaque on his bookshelf reading “Bare Feet Welcome” reveals Howell’s true feelings. In his estimation, he has not worn shoes off campus in more than two years, except for special circumstances such as a conference he attended during the summer and extremely cold or snowy winter days.
“For me to put on shoes and walk around is kind of like me asking you to put on a football helmet and walk around,” Howell said with a smile.
Howell first began his life without shoes for multiple reasons. Growing up on a farm in Central Virginia, Howell often went barefoot, and he occasionally did so as a student at Old Dominion University. When he wore closed-toed shoes at Liberty, he noticed how uncomfortable it was to wear them all day. Around that time, Howell also had started trail running to get more exercise and noticed that his shoes were causing him ankle injuries when he stepped on roots and rocks. He researched what the scientific community knew about the relationship between shoes and feet, and what he found convinced him that it was time to lose the shoes.
“For well over 100 years, we have known that shoes are downright bad for you,” Howell said. “I know with scientific certainty that shoes are the cause of the vast majority of our foot problems — like 90 percent. The people that go see a podiatrist, almost all of their problems can be traced back to shoes.”
Since then, Howell has written a book, published in 2010, called “The Barefoot Book.” The book explains exactly why shoes are bad for the human body and the negative effects of wearing them.
“We’ve got this culture thing going on, where shoes are kind of expected,” Howell said. “That’s what I am challenging. I’m trying to challenge our culture and say that we’re doing something as a culture that is unhealthy and is bad for us.”
Howell has traveled all over the world to talk about his book, even appearing on NBC’s “TODAY Show.”
“The medical community has responded well to that book, and I’m very pleased,” Howell said. “There are a lot of barefoot-friendly podiatrists who recognize that shoes are a lot of the problem, and they are trying to encourage people to get out of their shoes, or at least wear better shoes. But wearing a better shoe is like smoking a
Despite the medical community’s positive reception, Howell still notices society’s lack of love for going barefoot. At first, he was refused service at some businesses, but as time went on, more people became willing to accept him. However, he still
hears of students who have the same problem.
Howell has inspired many of his students to go barefoot in recent years, and one of his students helped him in return. Hannah Gorin, now a senior at Liberty, had Howell for two anatomy and physiology classes when he was allowed to teach barefoot to promote his newly released book, and she coined the term “barefoot professor.”
According to Howell, Gorin referred to him one day as “my barefoot professor,” and the name stuck. He immediately trademarked the name and started barefootprofessor.com. Gorin said that she appreciated his style of teaching, even though his classes were difficult.
“I loved him as a teacher,” Gorin said. “Obviously, he wants us to be the best in our profession, so being an easy professor isn’t always the best way to teach if you’re going into the medical field. Obviously, people are really hard on teachers when they’re hard on you, but that’s the only way you learn.”
Another way Howell likes to get students to try going barefoot is by leading them on barefoot hikes. Gorin loved going barefoot so much that she attended three or four of his hikes, and she and her friends began hiking to the Liberty monogram.
“I love to lead students on barefoot hikes,” Howell said. “I love doing those because it gets you out in nature. Not only is it good for you physically and emotionally, there’s a spiritual aspect to getting out in nature and getting out there barefoot.”
Howell readily admits that teaching is his calling, but that was not always his career plan.
“I was the type of person who was interested in everything,” Howell said. “My problem was not that I couldn’t find a major. My problem was, of all the things I loved, which one was I going to pick as a major?”
According to him, he considered majoring in theater, physics and chemistry before finally settling on biology. He moved on to focus on microbiology in graduate school and ended up doing research at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
As he prepares to mark 10 years at Liberty next fall, Howell recalled how he believes God brought him there.
Howell grew up in Lynchburg and knew about Liberty, so when he felt like it was time to become a teacher, it was the first place he called. He reached out through phone and email, but he was told that Liberty was not hiring.
Coming home on a bus from a day of work at McGill, Howell listened to a Christian song in which the singer asks God to show him a butterfly or two. Howell began to pray the same thing, asking God to show him a butterfly or two as a sign that He wanted Howell to keep trying to teach at Liberty.
After Howell got off the bus, he found a card made by his three-year-old daughter on his front door. He opened it to reveal two butterflies drawn by his daughter.
“Now, I might be reading into this, but I (had) just prayed that God would show me a butterfly or two if he could hear me,” Howell said. “This was the note that was hanging on the door. I’m like, ‘This is not from my daughter. This is from God.’”
That card now sits on the bookshelf in Howell’s office, along with his “memory rock,” which is painted with two butterflies similar to the ones drawn by his daughter Jan. 7, 2003. According to Howell, they serve as a reminder that God hears prayers.
By July 2003, Liberty had offered Howell a teaching position, and he was in Lynchburg and ready to teach by August.
“I think that there is no doubt that this is where I belong,” Howell said. “God wants me here. I’ve been here for 10 years, and I love it more now than I did in 2003. It’s a fantastic place.”