Tuesday, in Tryon People’s Cemetery, a grand lady of Prince Edward Island was laid to rest. Betty Zelda (nee King) Howatt, a staunch and unfailing defender of rural P.E.I., died last Friday in Summerside. Her obituary was short and unassuming, omitting details of the immense impact she had on this province throughout her 88 years.
Her numerous honours and achievements were not included in that simple death notice. It was typical of Howatt, who placed family, community and province ahead of self. While many Islanders are familiar with them, they certainly deserve mention again.
Howatt was a wonderful connection to the pastoral, unhurried province of yesteryear. It was almost as if she tried to recreate the romantic view of L.M. Montgomery’s fictional Avonlea at her beloved Willowshade Farm, where for 50 years she and her husband Everett operated a mixed fruit operation within sight and sound of the Northumberland Strait. Together, they ran the 75-acre farm that has been in Everett's family since 1783.
Howatt came to prominence in 1973, the Island's centennial year, when she helped form The Brothers and Sisters of Cornelius Howatt to counter a philosophy of "selling the province at any price." The Tryon farmhouse was the birthplace of Cornelius Howatt - Everett's great-great uncle and one of only two members of the Island legislature to vote against joining Canada in 1873.
Betty embraced change for the better, but that often meant she clashed with decision-makers when she thought the ‘Island way of life’ was under threat or things were going too far, too fast.
A well-known author and storyteller, she entertained Islanders with her popular and long-running weekly segment on CBC Radio’s MainStreet – Tales From Willowshade Farm where she provided weekly lessons on Island plants and wildlife. She also turned those snippets of country living into a book by the same title.
For many years, she was a loyal contributor to the Voice For Island Seniors. Her final submission, which appeared just last week in a Guardian insert, was timely and on topic, entitled ‘A Christmas Concert.’ Early in her career, she taught in rural schools of P.E.I. where the teacher’s reputation hinged on two things – keeping order in a one-room schoolhouse, and organizing a memorable Christmas concert. Her story of staging a Christmas concert more than 60 years ago was both vintage whimsy and humorous.
Her opinions were well known and she wasn’t hesitant about sharing them. At many key meetings where important decisions were being discussed, she was there to passionately defend her point of view.
She waged a 10-year campaign against the construction of the Confederation Bridge, fearing it would unleash a tide of development, which would forever negatively change the face of the province she loved. A founding chairman of the anti-link Friends of the Island, she took a leading role at public meetings during the plebiscite campaign. Even after the Yes side won, the Friends waged a legal battle against the bridge, winning a federal court ruling about an insufficient environmental review.
The outspoken activist on behalf of Island heritage was also an early champion of P.E.I.s environmental and agricultural heritage, promoting land stewardship, protecting our water and supporting the importance of farming to the Island’s economy and way of life.
An active public speaker and volunteer, Howatt also served with many local and national organizations. She was presented with the prestigious Award of Honour from the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation for contributions in raising awareness of Island heritage and for her work on the foundation’s board for 12 years. She was among the inaugural six recipients of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medals for her community work, an honour later recognized on the floor of the Canadian Senate.
Howatt supported a P.E.I. heritage museum to preserve the stories of the Island. She said, “There are too many people who are just in the here and now and they forget what has come before.”
Now she is at rest close to her beloved Willowshade Farm. A pillar of Island society is gone but not forgotten. If ever a provincial museum should become a reality, the name of Betty Howatt should adorn the main entryway. Islanders owe her that and so much more.
- "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith." (Timothy)