Cunning, with scissors
Deborah Carolyn Howell; 1941-2010
“You over write! You put too much (blanking) tinsel on your (blanking) tree!”
Decades ago, when “cut and paste” actually meant cut and paste Deborah Howell stood in a room adorned with itsy bitsy pieces of paper taped to the walls—scraps that Howell had personally snipped with the skill of an editor. Scissors still in hand, and standing stiletto to stiletto with writer Jacqui Banaszynski in a room decorated in “early editing” she provided the writer with some rather pointed pointers for rewriting and rearranging a story. Her protégé stood up for her initial draft but ultimately obliged. The result? The piece was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—one of three that Howell would eventually attain.
Cunning, with scissors.
Heartbreaking, heartwarming tributes have poured in from journalism’s glitterati since Howell’s tragic accidental death in New Zealand weeks ago. Jacqui’s story is one you’d want to hear at a retirement party—or a birthday roast with a stiff scotch in hand. So the fact that this wonderful salty story of a ballsy broad was recounted in the National Cathedral at Howell’s memorial is cruel, indeed. She was tragically taken way too early from her husband, Peter, and a world that loved her beyond measure. Of the Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post ombudsman, Jacqui said, “She kicked my ass and lifted me up like no other mentor ever has.”
Howell, the boss.
Just an armchair fan who read Howell every Sunday, I was at this memorial for a specific reason. Kevin Naff of the Washington Blade (now The DC Agenda) had recounted in his column how Deborah had changed the tone and tenor of his relationship as a gay journalist with The Washington Post—by simply returning his call. I thought there might be a story here. And boy was there.
But who could possibly follow Jacqui’s wonderful tribute?
Meet Howell, the sister.
It’s hard to describe how touching her little sister Pam’s eulogy was but, if ever there was a family that deserved it to be in print—it is this one. The Cliff Notes are that Deborah was born asthmatic and not expected to ever excel. When she was a teen, their father—a newspaperman in San Antonio, Texas—tried to dissuade Deborah from journalism into teaching by sending her out with his buddies—cops on the local beat. A gory night of murder and mayhem was certain to turn her off.
It turned her on.
The safety of a classroom full of schoolchildren wasn’t her destiny—and yet she became the best journalism teacher of all—her classroom, planet earth. She never wasted a moment of her life. Seated among hundreds of Washington’s most powerful people, it’s hard to imagine her in a singular classroom in Texas “wasting” herself on just 30 kids a year. The world needed Deborah Howell and Deborah relentlessly brought it on. Give her land, lots of land, under starry skies above and—for Pete’s sake—don’t fence this one in!
And therein comes the story of her brother, Ghent who died of AIDS in 1997. According to Pam, Deborah was convinced that if she could keep travel destinations in his future, he’d beat the odds. After the service, Pam was kind enough to send me Ghent’s obituary. Their brother was a life-long gardener and photographer, who moved to San Francisco in the mid seventies. He pursued a professional career in retail design, working in specialty gift shops, as well as Liberty House and Neiman Marcus.
“Ghent had an amazing ability to find and create beauty in everything he touched, both in his professional and personal life. His family and friends took great pleasure and pride in the gifts he gave of both himself and his talents. He enjoyed traveling throughout the world, from Tahiti to Paris and beyond. He particularly loved the European adventures he shared with his sister, Deborah.”
And so reveals the reason that Deborah returned a gay journalist’s call. Where the hell is the S for Sibling in PFLAG? When parents are gone and friends are worn out, it’s that sister (certainly THIS sister) that kicks your ass and lifts you up—literally in the air—hopping a plane to Vienna. Paris. Anywhere Deborah could take him.
And when he died, she curled up next to him in his bed and hugged him as tight as she could. Ghent never doubted for a moment that he was loved. As a gay man I cannot thank Howell enough for the unconditional love in her heart.
On the cover of her memorial service program is a glorious photo of the stained glass window Deborah donated in her brother’s name to the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Bethesda, Maryland. Inscribed beneath: “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” ~ Malachi 4:2
Those who loved her said goodbye on her 69th birthday. Glorious yellow roses of Texas adorned the altar and I’m convinced that her salty sorority sisters, Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, were hovering just above. Writing about —and for—a woman cunning, with scissors who cared so deeply for her gay brother is intimidating work. Is it too much (blanking) tinsel? So I’ll just end with music to any journalist’s ear.
Thanks for returning our call.
Memorial contributions can be made to the scholarship fund: The Deborah C. Howell Memorial Scholarship at her alma mater, the University of Texas. www.texasexes.org/form/ donate/.asp