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Sallie Baldwin Townsend Howard, the lifelong educator who inspired the creation of the Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts and Education, has died.
She was hospitalized early Saturday after having a seizure and passed at 2:50 a.m. Tuesday in Wilson.
“She was 102 years old and wanted everyone to know that ‘she was ready,’” said JoAnne Woodard, founder of the charter school established in 1997. “We miss her already, but her life and her legacy remains with us, enshrined in the work we do for children for generations to come.”
Howard traveled to more than 40 countries around the world and spent more than two decades teaching in the New York City public schools before returning to North Carolina to educate children in Wilson.
“I have to say she taught me everything I know,” said Woodard, who had known Howard since 1986.
The two established a summer youth enrichment program that ultimately led to the creation of the Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts and Education. The school is home to 1,000 students today, and a new Sallie B. Howard High School for the Arts and Science is planned to open by 2020.
“This school is as a result of her inspiration,” said Sandeep Aggarwal, dean of cultural affairs and business at the school. “Dr. Woodard founded this school to serve kids in the community who would not otherwise receive those services in those ways.”
Aggarwal said Howard did not miss a single school event.
“She would come to every performance and would be the biggest cheerleader for every kid, sitting right in the front, sometimes crying, sometimes speaking in joy and just saying ‘You know what you are doing, kids’ and encouraging them and after the performance, going up to the stage and shaking their hands, meeting all of them and encouraging all of them,” Aggarwal said.
“Her spirit was so amazingly uplifting for these children and the staff at Sallie B. Howard and the community. Her legacy is now our legacy and the school is named after her because of who she is. We were following her being a role model in so many ways. We made her legacy and lifestyle and thought process our own and that is how this institution is functioning today and will function forever.”
Aggarwal said many children loved her in part because she touched their lives by speaking to them directly in their classrooms, on the stage and in the hallways.
“She lived her life showing us how to live a life of meaning and her vision and her legacy, we made it our own,” Aggarwal said. “That is the impact of one person, Sallie B. Howard, on all of us that we are able to see and feel and be determined in our hearts and minds how to have a life of meaning where we can have a beautiful and positive impact on others and this world we live in.”
Woodard compared Howard’s community impact to that of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and John F. Kennedy.
“They had impact,” Woodward said. “They didn’t just live their own lives for their own selves. They lived lives that changed the world of a nation, a country. Here is a human being, a lowly human being, who changed the world, who definitely changed this community and thousands and thousands of children and families and not just in Wilson, but where she worked, where she taught in New York City as a teacher. She transformed and inspired people to take action and to get up off those stoops in Harlem and make some change in their educational system for their children.”
Howard inspired people to be more than what they think they are.
“The legacy is that if she, a lowly old sharecropper’s daughter, can change a world, then you and I can do it too,” Woodard said. “She’s a testimony that a single person can change the world and make a huge difference.”
Pratibha Lakhani, director of instruction, said Howard was the life of the school.
“Three weeks ago when we had that after-school academy show, she was here and gave the same message every time,” Lakhani said. “‘We are one. It doesn’t matter what color skin you have or where you are from, we are one.’ That was the message every time. That’s who she was. She lived that message.”
“I think as a result of her travels, she was an amazing person and saw everyone as one. It was a message of unity,” Aggarwal said. “We own it and we live by that.”
Maurice Coble, a board member at the school, knew Howard from the many years when they were running the summer school youth enrichment programs.
“I am joyous about her legacy and it is exemplified in this building here, this school,” Coble said. “She was a truly loving spirit with a total lifetime commitment to educating children. She gave it her all to the end. The beauty of her passing is just that she was just lifted up. No long, lingering illness. She’s vibrant to the end, full of spirit, full of viver and encouraging and motivating to all.”
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield plans to recognize Howard’s life on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday.
In a statement Tuesday, Butterfield called Howard a “luminary.”
“Mrs. Howard lived an extraordinary life of service to her community and contributed greatly to the lives of youth in Wilson and across the country,” Butterfield said.
“She was a leader in our community because of her strength and generous spirit. Today, I celebrate her life, not just because of her academic gifts but because of the blessings she bestowed on our community. May God bless the life and memory of an incredibly wonderful human being. Sallie Baldwin Howard now belongs to the ages.”
Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts and Education will hold a “homegoing celebration” at the school Saturday. Details will be forthcoming.