Editor’s note: We often hear about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in numbers of cases and deaths. But each data point represents a human life whose loss is felt by countless other people. We are chronicling some of them in an obituary series called Lives Remembered. If someone special to you has died of COVID-19, please tell us about them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Lives Remembered,” or by filling out the form at the bottom of this page.
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Cora Jean Howard stood 4-foot-11, embodied selflessness and demanded excellence from everyone — even complete strangers.
These were the most consistent descriptions from the people who loved Mrs. Howard, a 77-year-old wife, mother and veteran teacher who passed away from COVID-19 on April 3.
In the weeks since, her seven children and 17 grandchildren have been robbed of the comfort that physical closeness brings in mourning the woman who held them together. As he deals with the loss of his best friend and childhood sweetheart, Mrs. Howard’s husband of 56 years, Theodore, now fights his own battle with the virus.
“I’ve been isolated, eating by myself, trying hard to breathe and memorizing all of the good things we’ve had together,” said Theodore.
All the Howard family can do to weather the storm is to think of the warmth she brought to their lives. There’s plenty to draw from.
“Sometimes you take your car in to get service, and that person takes care of your car like it’s theirs. She did that for her students, and so many other people, too,” said Theodore “Ted” Howard II, her son.
Cora Jean Smith was born in Lufkin, Texas, on Dec. 20, 1942. Theodore said they met as kids — she was in band, he was a linebacker — and their relationship blossomed from a few shy hallway encounters to walking home together almost every day. They married at a nearby Baptist church 1963, two years after Mrs. Howard graduated. They had seven children between 1965 and 1979.
A few years after they married, they moved to Seattle’s Central area, where they both made career switches to become public school educators, she as an elementary school teacher, he as a principal.
Mrs. Howard, a devout Christian who regularly sat in the pews for early Sunday service at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Capitol Hill, poured her heart into teaching kids, a job she did for 23 years before her retirement in 2009.
Her admirers said her greatest strength as an educator was the care she took with students who struggled in school or at home, driving them home when their parents had late shifts, and making regular home visits. She relayed those lessons in empathy to her children, three of whom became educators.
When her daughter Shari Howard-Powell became a teacher, Mrs. Howard would observe her in the classroom.
“Sometimes I’d be so upset, and ask, ‘Why would this student do this to me?’ ” said Howard-Powell, a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle. “She said, ‘Honey, you can only control the six hours that child is with you in the classroom. Sometimes a child has been hurt, and abused, and you’re the only consistent routine that they have. Show them as much love as you can.’ ”
When her son, Ted Howard II, began his career in education, first as a teacher and now as the principal at Garfield High School, Mrs. Howard lectured him about expecting excellence from his students.
She told him, “I don’t want you ever to walk into any classroom or any part of the building and feel as if a kid can’t make it,” said Ted.
Though she was small in stature, Mrs. Howard also knew how to run a classroom, and demand respect, her husband said. Her kids’ noses were always in their books. She regularly left her job at Emerson Elementary School, the last school she taught at before her retirement, so late at night that she was advised to notify the custodian when she was still in the building.
Shari said her mom once pulled the car over to advise a stranger who was yelling and yanking at her son in a park. As Shari watched in disbelief from the passenger seat, the mother — who was initially affronted at the intervention— later hugged Mrs. Howard.
Over the years, students have shown their appreciation in many ways, sending postcards over the holidays and sending notes of condolences to the family since hearing of her passing.
In their retirement, Theodore and Mrs. Howard, who built a home in the Leschi area, spent their days babysitting grandchildren and living vicariously through their children, whom they’d sacrificed so much to raise, said Ted. Mrs. Howard, who’d always wanted to travel internationally but couldn’t, encouraged her kids to send photos from their journeys.
Mrs. Howard’s funeral at Evergreen Washelli Cemetery was capped to a dozen people, spaced far apart. Family members wore masks and cried in separation. The pastor had to project his voice, loudly, to make sure everyone in the scattered audience heard.
“He spoke about her love of teaching, and love of families, and love of kids. He said, ‘When God comes back, he wants you to know you were loved, and your mom was loved,’ ” said Ted. “That’s not a small feat, he told us — to express love.”