A Bench for Mrs. Howe
A beloved teacher is remembered
in a place where children play
Brightly colored balloons soared into pretty blue skies on a mild afternoon last month to conclude a gathering honoring Ruth Howe, an unforgettable teacher whose private preschool was the first educational experience for more than 40 years' worth of classes of 4-year-old boys and girls.
More than a hundred friends, former students or parents of students came to dedicate a fanciful bench placed under a giant shade tree facing the lake at Carol Ann Cross Park.
"We want it to be a place where parents and kids could sit and tell Mrs. Howe stories," explained Margie Howe Bootenhoff, Ruth's daughter.
After her mother died earlier this year, Margie had been thinking of a way to create a small but fitting memorial to share her mother's memory with all the children, young or grown, who had ever been her mother's pupils.
Margie credited the idea for a park bench to Heather Paulus, one of her mom's neighbors who had also sent her children to Mrs. Howe's preschool and who had become the teacher's very good friend.
"My mother taught through imagination," Margie explained. A quiet bench seemed to be the perfect place for moms or dads to sit with their children, to daydream and fully give their attention to one another. Those kinds of intimate moments are what every student and parent who knew Mrs. Howe seems to remember best.
"One on one, she had the ability to make each child feel they were her favorite - the most special child in the world," Margie said.
In the recollection of person after person, it is true. Many of her students of 40 years ago or just last year still believe Mrs. Howe knew and loved them best of all. Margie said as she and her family were leaving her mother's visitation the evening before the funeral, a man in his 30s whom they had never met slipped in the door to pay his respects. "He told me that my mother always said to him 'Here comes my favorite boy.'"
Margie, who inherited her mother's wide and brilliant smile, said she and her son Slater - an only child and only grandchild, respectively - hear those kinds of sentiments without a trace of jealousy. "Mother really did have that ability," she explained. I never questioned the the fact that I was #1!"
It was even a bit of a relief to Margie that her mom did have so many other children to shower with attention, she admits. "There was plenty of her to go around! Mother had more energy than anyone you have ever met in your life." That was what made her school not only dear, but so much fun. She could think like, play like and enjoy life with the same enthusiasm as a 4-year-old.
Mrs. Howe crafted her curriculum to delight and educate very young children and was so consistent that children of former students had the very same experiences as their parents remembered. No matter what year a child attended, there were always animals to learn about and care for - from tree frogs to bunnies and ducklings, with a few flying squirrels, too. By some Mrs. Howe magic, kittens were born each school year to a succession of mama cats named Cupcake. Always, there was a horse or pony for the students to meet.
Many of her friends and students did not know Mrs. Howe was an accomplished horsewoman. She had grown up on a farm in Nebraska, training and showing gaited American Saddlebred horses with her father.
In fact, a young Ruth was scouted as a potential stunt rider for Elizabeth Taylor in the classic movie "National Velvet."
"The same gift she had with horses made her so amazing with children," Margie reasons. "Personal attention, seeing a problem before it happens ... making every effort to see that a horse (or child) will be successful."
Although she passed on her chance at Hollywood, the young woman who would become a mother and teacher had plenty of imagination and play-acting in her future. Her audience would be children.
Pollyanna Core, Mrs. Howe's longtime neighbor, observed what she called her friend's "magic" over many years, including when the Core kids went to pre-school. Mrs. Howe knew how to relate to children on their own scale and abilities, using simple ideas.
"Every year the kids would make little boats out of English walnut shells," she recalled. "I remember how carefully the children would carry them home - just a toothpick stuck in clay with a little white flag for a sail. They thought it was so magical."
Starting informally when Margie reached preschool age, Mrs. Howe eventually conducted school for four separate classes of as many as 10 or 12 pupils who came in either morning or afternoon. She also held summer camps.
"I have only recently realized she was a good businesswoman," Margie said. While her mom wanted to stay home, she also wanted to teach. Looking back at Mrs. Howe's progression to obtaining licensing and writing her own curriculum, Margie realizes her mother had sound career strategies.
As she grew up, Margie often helped with the school as did her own son when he was visiting his grandparents in summer. Her dad good-naturedly helped collect smooth rocks at Natural Dam to be painted as "gold" nuggets or to be painted by kids, as paperweights. Thomas W. Howe died in 2009.
Margie and her husband Craig Bootenhoff, also a Fort Smith native, have lived in Colorado since graduating college. She was in marketing for the ski industry for many years and is now a consultant. She recognizes her mother's influence on her own career.
"My business sense came from my mother and I never really got to tell her," she said.
If marketing means to persuading someone to do as you wish, Mrs. Howe was a pro. The Fort Smith Fire Department fell for her fondly - hook, line and ladder truck.
Mrs. Howe loved to take students on field trips to Station 7 on Euper Lane. Long-time fireman Keith Jones knew the drill. Senior fire officers trained newer firemen how to respond.
"Mrs. Howe is coming," Jones said the chiefs would instruct. "SHE will run the tour."
All the firemen adored her even though her tour was strenuous, he recounts. "She would say 'Children, I wonder how the firemen get their clothes on so quickly when they are asleep?' We would actually get in the beds, call in to get an alarm to ring and jump up and put our boots on," he laughed. But the tour was not over.
"Then she'd say 'Children, I wonder how the water gets out of the firetruck?' and we'd show them that, too." Jones said Mrs. Howe's students were better behaved than any others who visited. "Her kids were at attention, with their shirts tucked in!" he said in admiration. During the last few years of her life, the firemen began driving the firetruck right to her house to visit.
Sweet and funny anecdotes by the dozens were swapped on the internet (Mrs. Howe has a Facebook page), at her funeral and at the park bench dedication. There are families with two- and three-generation alumni of Mrs. Howe's Preschool who can compare notes. There are even mothers who called Mrs. Howe when they learned they would be having a baby, in order to make sure they could be enrolled in four years.
Neal Pendergraft, a friend of the family, conducted the bench dedication for Margie along with the pastor and singers from Goddard Methodist Church. He said he regretted that because of his age he had not attended Mrs. Howe's school. "But every person she met became her student," he said at the ceremony.
His younger sister Lauri Pendergraft Mason did get to attend preschool and remembers feeling nervous and shy until the moment Mrs. Howe smiled and said hello.
"Once you let go of your mother's hand, you went to her - and you felt you were the only one," she said.
As the bench dedication came to an end, friends were hugging and laughing and Margie was patting and kissing her mother's oldest friends. The bench was already the scene of family portraits, just as she had hoped. As she had written to her mother's popular Facebook group, "It's almost like the kids can still sit on her lap."