Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sheila B. Varnum Howard 1925 - 2012

Sheila B. Varnum Howard passed away peacefully at her home in Blue Hill, Maine on Sunday April 15, 2012 with her family at her side.
Although Sheila came to be almost exclusively associated with Rowantrees, she actually lived a rather varied life that included overcoming a dreaded bone disease as a very young child, attending the University of Maine, working on behalf of the war effort in Boston in 1944, running a small store in Brooksville with her first husband, working as a reporter for the local newspaper and being a tireless advocate for human rights.

And yes, she worked at Rowantrees. Her first job there consisted of pasting price labels on the bottom of pots that were to be put up for sale, but eventually she went on to become a "thrower." When Laura Paddock took over the business following the death of its founder, Adelaide Pearson, Sheila became the manager. Following Laura Paddock's death, Sheila became the owner of Rowantrees.

Sheila often told me (and anyone else who listened) that she was never a business person. She far preferred working for the business over running it. But she felt an intense sense of responsibility to both Pearson and Paddock to continue the tradition that they had established. She also instilled that sense of responsibility in the employees she hired to work for her.

Including me.

It's hard to describe Sheila's generosity because it is so rarely found these days. She had the dubious honor of teaching me how to live in the real world as I came to Rowantrees fresh out of college and (despite my opinion to the contrary) inexperienced in such matters. Someone had to point that out and Sheila drew that particular short straw.

As an employer, Sheila was patient to a fault. She was as much a teacher as anything else. When she hired me, she told me that she would put about three years into making a potter out of me. I thought she was crazy.

She wasn't. That's how long it took. And I'm still learning.

In my full-time job, I manage a small ambulance company with a staff of about 25 employees. The manner in which I treat them is always informed by the way Sheila treated me. Do unto others...

I will miss the consultation sessions I had with Sheila after I started Lowell Hill Pottery. I will miss being able to show her my work and get her feedback; how the mugs need to be a little straighter up the sides or how the curve on the inside of that bowl looks good. Or not.

A major influence in my life has taken leave of this world and that's not easy to take in all at once. Walking into the pottery feels different than it did just a few days ago. It's hard to describe.

What isn't difficult to describe is the incredible manner in which Sheila chose to make her exit. Yes, I said 'chose.' She had been in declining health, and when medical treatment could not offer any improvement, she called her family together and informed them that she wanted to cease medications and allow nature to take its course. Her family honored her wishes Sheila spent the next few days holding court as a procession of friends came to say their goodbyes. I spent some time in a final conversation with her and that experience will remain with me for the rest of my life. How often do we get to say goodbye when we know it will be the last time?

We said some wonderful things back and forth. I'll always have that.

Sheila's family took impeccable care of her for seven days, never leaving her side and tending to her comfort. It could not have been easy for any of them, but I marvel at the way in which it all came together. Hospice - a concept I truly believe in - was present as needed and came through beautifully. It was Old New England as few get to experience it.

Sheila, you will be sorely missed, but forever loved. Rest in peace.