Beth Howard, healthcare advocate, thespian, mentor and beloved friend, died Oct. 10 after a six-year battle with inflammatory breast cancer.
“We knew that it was a pretty serious diagnosis,” said Mark Humphrey, who worked with Howard as a member of the Sterling Playmakers. “But Beth always said to me, ‘I’m going to beat this. This isn’t the end of me. I will see 50.’”
She celebrated her 50thbirthday in September.
Howard was known throughout her community as a larger-than-life figure whose many passions included fashion, public relations, healthcare reform, community theater and working with children. She decided that she would not let inflammatory breast cancer, which has a survival rate of less than 1 percent, interfere with her packed schedule.
“She was still volunteering at Sterling Middle School while she as on chemo,” said Kathy Bleutge, who collaborated with Howard on theatrical productions for more than a decade. “She had a bad reaction to one of the treatments and there was this big scar on her arm. It looked like a chunk had been taken out.
“Kids will be blatantly honest and some of them were asking what happened. She said, ‘Oh, a shark bit me.’ And when they wanted to know how she just said, ‘Well, with his teeth!’ She was like that. It was like nothing could ever get her down.”
Howard co-founded the Sterling Playmakers in 1996 and was intimately involved in dozens of productions. She directed “Hello, Dolly!“this summer while in the final phases of stage-4 cancer.
“She liked to mentor, especially the younger crowd,” said Helen Gernhardt, a close friend. “She loved working with kids. Several kids started when they were like 5 or 6 years old and continued to participate throughout high school. A couple of them have gone on to college majoring in musical theater or something theater related, and I know it made Beth feel so proud to think that she had a small part in that.”
In addition to personally taking several children from difficult homes under her wing and making sure they had adequate school supplies, Howard dedicated a large part of her life to healthcare advocacy. She worked tirelessly for health education and for expanding healthcare access to rural areas.
“There are communities where it may be four to six hours to drive to chemotherapy,” she said when she spoke to the Times-Mirror in July. “I’m still on chemotherapy, and having to drive that far limits whether you can take treatment, whether it will be accessible. [What] if I had been in one of those communities?”
Concern for others was the animating force of Howard’s life.
“She was by nature a caretaker,” recalled Helen Gernhardt, Howard’s close friend. “At one point my husband had to travel a lot for work, and when she sensed I was lonely she’d call me up and say, ‘Come on, we’re going shopping. You’re coming with me.’ She pulled me out of myself. One of hardest things she had to learn when she was diagnosed was that it was OK for others to take care of her. But it made our friendship so much stronger.”
Among those who knew her, Howard is remembered for a magnetic personality that “drew people toward her” and for her unflagging optimism.
“She had some very tough things happen in her life but she was always very positive,” said Bleutge, Howard’s Playmakers colleague. “I don’t know how she could be that way. And I think that’s why it hit us so hard; she stayed so positive that it was difficult to believe it was really that bad.”
Howard’s energy and optimism were irrepressible.
“When I went to visit her in the hospital she was sleeping,” said Bleutge. “And I know this sounds crazy, but for some reason I expected her to jump right up and say, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get out of here.’”
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