George Bernard Shaw said, “Life does not cease to be a comedy when somebody dies, any more than it ceases to be a tragedy when a baby is born.” This morning, we will explore both comedy and tragedy as we remember Bev Howard’s life. A Zen master once said, “Life is like climbing into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.” Again, “ Life is like climbing into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.” All we can do is enjoy the ride. I’d like to tell you a little about Bev Howard and her ride . . . and how she enjoyed it.
Beverly Barton Howard was born 71 years ago in Manchester, with her grandfather as the attending physician. Her parents, Barbara and Phil Barton, took her back to Colebrook, where Phil was principal of the local school. A year later, Bev’s little brother, Phil, was born, and the family shortly moved to Weare, New Hampshire, where Bev’s dad was now principal. Bev spent her early childhood in Weare, and maintained lifelong friends there, some of whom are with us today. Whether swimming, sharing secrets with her friends the Dows or playing in the fields, Bev loved Weare, and really regretted having to move to Durham when she was 10, but her father had been called to organize and develop the Thompson School at UNH.
In Durham, Bev quickly made friends who would remain life long: Jane Abel, Barbara Grinnell, and many others. Coming of age in Durham during the early 40’s, Bev loved to read, staying up late many times reading under her covers. An indiscriminate reader, Bev read the classics, the latest novels, the Bobsey Twins and Nancy Drew. Still, she found time for her friends and, occasionally, her studies.
This all changed in 1946. With the war over, UNH was besieged with returning veterans and their families, all eager to grab their piece of the American Dream through the greatest social service program ever administered: the GI Bill. As Durham had been a sleepy little college town, it was not close to ready to house all these new students. One student, Roger Howard, and his wife, Edna, searching for a place to live, heard that the Barton family might be able to house them. Bev was unceremoniously forced to leave her spacious bedroom and move into her brother Phil’s room, as he had decamped to Northfield Mount Herman for prep school.
Bev heard that Roger had a twin brother, and one day a knock came at the door of 82 Madbury Road. Bev opened the door, said, “You must be Richard.” The rest, as they say, is history, as Bev and Rich fell in love almost immediately, and would have married right away but for Bev’s father’s requirement that Rich graduate from college before she could marry him. A previously undistinguished scholar (to say the least), having focused more on football, skiing and baseball, Rich buckled down to his studies long enough to graduate in 1949, with a bachelor’s degree. While Rich never used his zoology degree, it did manage to snag him Bev, a pretty good return on investment as it turned out.
Bev and Rich married in September of 1949, becoming Bev-and-Rich, two people with one soul. Always, it was Bev-and-rich, not one without the other. Bev and Rich settled into their first apartment on Edgewood Road at the Fitts’s. Although Bev had ostensibly been a home economics student at UNH, her domestic skills were not fully developed. In fact, when they married Rich had to cut her meat, the same way her father had when she lived at home. Later in their early marriage, Bev tried to make pea soup in a deep-well cooker, starting the process by turning the burner to high. Their close friends, Paul and Nan Holle, invited them over for drinks, and Bev figured they would be back shortly. This being the early 50s, when the martini generation was in full flower, one drink led to another led to Bev and Rich coming home three hours later to find their kitchen engulfed in smoke, the soup’s ham bone a cremated crisp and the bottom of the cooker completely burned out. Not to digress, but 40 years later, Bev and her daughter-in-law, Cindy, thought that the loaf of bread they had bought had been packaged in a special type of paper that would withstand heat. They inserted the bread in a 350-degree oven and went off to enjoy a glass or three of wine. Different decade, but the same result. Suffice to say, Bev was a lovely, dear beautiful person, but not one who was born to the kitchen.
After a year in Boston, Rich and Bev returned to Durham, becoming active in the young married set: the Holles, the Mooradians, the McDonalds, the Finnegans, the Myers and many others. In 1956, they bought their first house, Paul Holle’s house on Faculty Road. Throughout this time, Bev and Rich had tried to have children, with Bev getting pregnant five times, but being unable to carry full-term. While they very much enjoyed the process of impregnation, their hearts were broken with each miscarriage. Recognizing that they could not have biological children, Bev and Rich began the process of adoption. Their efforts paid off in May of 1959, when they adopted their son, Keith, who was six months old at the time. Bev and Rich loved that little boy and treasured every milestone of his life. Later, in response to a request from a court that Keith’s adoption records be unlocked at the request of a biological half-sibling, Keith wrote:
My view of life is that each of us is born with certain biological strengths and limitations; the vast majority of us have “enough” of everything we need to be successful. The secret to that success, though, comes not, except in the case of professional basketball players and midget wrestlers, from the biology with which we are born, but from the psychology and sociology of our parents, which enables us to make good choices later in our lives. In the battle between nature and nurture, my money is on the importance of nurture. For example, I was born with a brain capable of learning a lot of different information. My mother is a voracious reader who encouraged me to read broadly, deeply and until my eyes dried out. Whether I was reading comic books or Kafka, she urged me to read and think about what I was reading. Likewise, I was born with potentially adequate hand-eye coordination and a body that would be capable of running fast. My father, who was a high-school phenom, drove me to baseball soccer and track practice and attended every single one of my childhood and high school games, meets and tournaments, whether I was starting or riding the bench. In each of these examples, and in countless more, I was born with certain potential gifts and abilities but it was the nurturance of my parents who breathed reality into that potential.
Two years later, Bev and Rich were blessed with the arrival of their daughter, Jennifer. Jennifer, or Gengifer as Paul Holle called her, was a beautiful and sweet young girl, of whom her parents were very proud. While Jennifer and Keith generally got along, there was a bit of sibling rivalry, as Jennifer was the good and faithful daughter and Keith was . . . well . . . Keith. When Keith drowned Jennifer’s Chatty Cathy doll in the toilet, for example, nobody wanted to know what the doll had done to him first. Later, when Keith rolled the family car out of the garage onto the inclined driveway so that he could wash it, he really expected that his 110 pounds would be able to stop a Chevy Malibu. Instead, it took a light pole across the street to break the car’s momentum—and its windshield. Jennifer made quilts and other crafts; Keith made trouble. But I digress.
In 1966, Bev and Rich built their dream home on Beards Landing in Durham, joining 10 families with 30 children among them. Bev quickly became close to Ann Cochran, Bev Dingle and Barbara Cilley. A few years later, Bev took a job at the Durham Trust Company (later to become the Durham Bank and later to become defunct). While Bev began as a part-time receptionist, because of her parental obligations, over time she demonstrated her organizational ability and her skills in working with difficult people. By the time she retired, 15 years later, she had become an officer of the bank, in charge of customer service. Even then, though, she retired making less money than the youngest, least experienced male officer. While Bev would probably not have identified herself as a feminist, she had an incredibly raised consciousness about the role of women, and was not the least bit shy about publicly pointing out hypocrisy and unfairness.
Many of Bev’s close friends come from this period at the bank: Flora Shields, Faye Kenniston, Grace Knight, Miner Taylor and, most of all, Jean Hull. Jean, and her husband Jack, joined the team of Bev-and-Rich, traveling around the world and to any beer-soaked club where a band would let Jack sing his bawdy additions to the old R & B number, “Kansas City.” Jack-and-Jean and Bev-and-Rich had quite a ride together, and when the Hulls died, the Bev and Rich bond became even stronger.
Bev retired from the bank in 1984, and she and Rich moved to Florida, after Jennifer’s wedding to Dennis, the son-in-law who was like a son to her. In Florida, she had the chance to become closer to Rich’s sister, Phyllis and her husband, Bob. Within a few months of retirement, though, Bev grew tired of staying home, and took a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, where she quickly became a highly valued employee. In 1991, as soon as Bev heard that Cindy, her daughter in law, was pregnant, though, she and Rich planned their move back to New Hampshire, where they would become closer to Rich’s brother Wesley and his wife, Dora. Always, family came first for Bev. Bev and Rich were living in Concord for the birth of Rebecca, and the births of their subsequent granddaughters, Nicole, Mary, Jayme and Elizabeth. “Doting” does not begin to describe Bev’s relationship with her granddaughters, as she believed that each one, in her own way, was the most beautiful, wonderful and creative little girl in the whole wide world.
Last Friday night, Bev died of a massive brain hemorrhage. Her life ended painlessly as she made dinner for the man she loved, her husband of 51 years. None of us know the day or the time when we will die; could Bev have chosen her time to die, though, it is not impossible that she would have chosen this very moment.
A Zen master once said, “ Life is like climbing into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.” Again, “ Life is like climbing into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.” All we can do is enjoy the ride. When Beverly Barton Howard’s boat sank into the sea last Friday, she could look back onto a long, loving ride.
Let us pray:
God, thank you for Beverly Howard and the way she touched our lives. She was funny, and smart, and pretty, and we loved her very much. Thank you for having made her transition from life to death so painless and seamless. As each of us leaves here today, let us endeavor to create for ourselves a ride of love, selflessness, kindness and generosity. Let us also ask you that when it is our turn to sink into the sea, that we may go with the grace of Bev. Amen
In closing, I’d like to tell you what one of Bev’s granddaughters said when she was told that Grammy Bev had died. “I’m sorry she’s dead, but the good thing is that before she died, if I wanted her to watch me do something we had to drive to her house. Now, she can watch me all the time.” Now, she can watch me all the time.