The Ottumwa Courier

December 17, 2012

Eldon’s ‘Pie Lady’ drives to Newtown to give comfort, healing — and pie

CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier Staff Writer

NEWTOWN, Conn. — A gut reaction to the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. has turned into a mission of healing.

Across the nation on Friday, Americans stood in shock as news started pouring in of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Beth Howard, known as the “Pie Lady,” was one of the many shaken by the murders of 26 children and adults at the school.

On a whim, Howard posted on Facebook around 6:30 p.m. Friday: “Overwhelmed and heartbroken by the today’s [sic] tragedy, I feel like packing up my pie supplies into my RV and driving to Connecticut. If making pie and sharing it with the citizens of Newtown would help ease their pain I would load up a hundred cases of apples and start driving right now.”

That single post turned into an outpouring of support and encouragement. After several people commented that they would love to donate money for gas and pie supplies, Howard set up a PayPal account. Less than two hours later, people had donated $1,000 and by the time she left Eldon Saturday morning, the total had risen to more than $3,000. She said any extra money she receives will be donated to Newtown for grief counseling.

“I felt so helpless, like so many people did [Friday],” Howard said. “I have the time, the resources, an RV and pie-making skills. I know from experience how helpful it is. I wrote a whole book about how pie heals grief. If anybody knows, it’s me.”

After Howard’s husband, Marcus Iken, died unexpectedly at the age of 43 three years ago, she wrote “Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie,” which details her battle dealing with Iken’s death, the unexpected road trip she took across the country and the documentary that ensued and how she eventually found her way back to Iowa and the American Gothic House.

Howard said the support from volunteers has restored her faith in humanity.

One of those who wanted to help was Mike Nahra, of Chicago, a friend of Howard’s from high school. A minute after Howard posted on Facebook, Nahra was the first to respond: “I’d chip in on the gas.”

This set in motion a plan to drive her RV, dubbed “The Beast,” to pick up Nahra in Chicago Saturday afternoon so they could trade driving duties throughout the nearly 18-hour drive to Flanders, N.J. to meet up with Howard’s good friend, Janice Molinari.

Molinari produced Howard’s documentary and was featured in Howard’s book.

Fourteen minutes after Howard’s original Facebook post, Molinari commented: “You know I’d be right there with you.”

She has done that and so much more. Molinari organized seven kitchens in her neighborhood for the “bake-a-thon” Sunday and Monday. The group will drive to Newtown on Tuesday and begin distributing the pies. Howard also hopes to reach out to schools and teach pie-baking classes as she has done with students at Ottumwa High School for the past two years. The OHS students have shown her “how powerful the effects of pie-making can be.”

“I want to get the kids involved and give the community something else to focus on. There’s a lot of stuff going on there, with the media swarming, with funerals to plan,” Howard said of the town of less than 2,000 that has only one funeral home. “I know a lot of people were affected that weren’t directly involved. I think there’s a place for this.”

Karen Wojtowicz, a teacher and parent in Newtown, reached out to Howard.

“What you are doing is so wonderful. ... I’m spreading the word about you in Newtown. Just trying to process all of this emotion and helping my 11-year-old through it. Bless you.”

When Molinari spoke to the Courier Saturday afternoon, she had just returned from Sam’s Club where she picked up 200 pounds of apples, 150 pounds of flour and 150 pounds of sugar. The Costco in Bridgetown, Conn. even donated flour, sugar, butter and shortening for the group.

Molinari said this is “typical Beth.”

“I started reading the Facebook post [Friday] night and the minute she said she wished she could bring a piece of pie to everyone out there in Newtown, I went, ‘Here we go,’” Molinari said with a laugh.

Molinari’s house is just off of Route 80 on Howard’s way to Connecticut.

“We have the greatest neighbors,” Molinari said. “I gathered people from the neighborhood who donated their kitchens, ovens, mixing bowls. A dozen neighbors will bake 200 pies [Sunday and Monday].”

As the baking began on Sunday, volunteers decided to add a personal touch to each pie: the initials of the 26 who died.

One of Molinari’s neighbors, a pastry chef, donated all of the boxes the bakers will need to box up the pies to take them to Newtown.

And after getting involved, Molinari sent out feelers in Newtown and found out she knows three people who have family or friends there, who will give the group a place to park the RV and set up their pie stand during their week in the community.

“It’s definitely important, because everyone feels like they want to help in any way they can,” Molinari said.

Everyone knows grief in some way, Molinari said.

“I’ve been through grief and I didn’t want to survive, but I did,” Howard said. “So I hope that I can help these people see that there’s still some goodness in the world. There’s still some light. It’s going to be very dark days for these people and I know everyone is hurting.”

Hopefully, the Newtown community will see that they can survive this tragedy, Howard said.

“I just think for me, it touches the human spirit and that’s what this is all about,” Molinari said. “When you go offer someone a slice of pie, you think how will that help them heal? But in the littlest way, it shows someone loves you, someone is thinking of you and it can help you start to heal.”

You can follow Howard’s journey on her Facebook page, “The World Needs More Pie,” or on Twitter at @worldneedspie or follow the hashtags #piefornewtown and #easethegrief.