Remembering Barbara Howard: 'They loved her'

Celebration of life for athlete and teacher set for April 1

Barbara Howard was only 17 years old when she boarded a ship to Australia to take part in the 1938 British Empire Games.

She was the first black female athlete to compete for Canada on the world stage.

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The longtime Burnaby resident ended up winning two medals – a silver and a bronze – after two relay team races. But it was her main event, the 100-yard dash, where she fell short and placed sixth, with a time of 11.5 seconds.

“She was very, very disappointed,” Howard’s niece Charline Robson told the NOW, adding her aunt had broken the Games’ existing record in her Canadian trials (11.2 seconds). “She didn’t feel like she was an athlete and didn’t represent her country.”

It came down to a poor diet and a lack of supervision on the trip, recalled Robson.

“She was just on her own, so somebody said, ‘C’mmon I’ll buy you lunch. She ate a lot of foods she wasn’t familiar with; a lot of rich foods, so that’s one of the reasons why she didn’t do very well because she was sluggish.”

Howard was the youngest of four children born to parents Cassie Scurry of Winnipeg and American Samuel Howard, a stationary engineer. Her father died when she was eight years old.  

The family lived in east Vancouver’s Grandview neighbourhood.

According to NOW archives, Howard’s speed was noticed early on. Her classmates always made her their number 1 pick for relay teams, and she always came home with first-place finishes when she competed in a sports day at school.

When she was a student at Laura Secord Elementary and the school bell would ring, she could sprint the last block-and-a-half and be at her desk on time for class.

It wasn’t until she joined the track club at Britannia Secondary that Howard took running seriously.

After the British Games, the sprinter had her sights set on the 1940 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. But because of the onset of the Second World War, the Games were cancelled.

As Robson put it, Howard “just carried on.”

She went on to become an elementary school teacher. In 1941, when most ethnic minorities were banned from teaching, Howard became the first visible minority to teach in Vancouver.

One particular teaching stint at Trafalgar Elementary from 1969 to 1972 presented a special challenge. Howard was given a group of 30 gifted students who were not performing well in the ordinary classroom setting.

“She took them out; all kinds of field trips,” said Robson. “She taught them photography. When she did anything it was to the nth degree.”

Many of those students became doctors, lawyers and teachers, she noted. For more than a decade, some of them took Howard out for lunch.

“They just loved her,” Robson said. “Many of them, especially the men, would say, ‘You know Ms. Howard, I don’t know where I would have been without you back in elementary school.”

Howard retired in 1984 and spent her golden years volunteering for the United Church. She was an inspiration to many women, especially immigrants, according to Robson.

“She would take them under her wing and give them advice. Anytime anybody would come to the church, when we finished the service, (she’d say), ‘Come to my house for tea.’ That’s why she had so many different friends, and younger friends that kept her young. People from the Philippines, Iran, China, Taiwan, Korea.

“I remember so many dinners we had and I looked around the table and so many different nationalities. She was just so inclusive. That’s what I remember mostly about growing up,” said Robson, adding she was raised by her aunts.

Howard was also a huge Canucks fan, dedicating a room in her home to the team, and catching a live game with neighbour and former NHL’er Jack McIlhargey when she could.

“That was her passion,” said Robson. “Every game, she’d be writing down their scores. She had all of their pictures all over her den.”

Howard was a also member of Confederation Centre, where she conducted peer counselling courses, ran exercise classes and gave hand massages to other seniors. She also belonged to the Delta Kappa Gamma sorority for more than 40 years.

But it wasn’t until her later years that her contributions to the sport of running would be recognized. The former sprinter was inducted into the Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame in 2011, followed by the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame a year later and the Canada Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.

“She loved the limelight,” said Robson. “She was over the moon, ... ‘Oh I wonder who it was who nominated me?’”

Howard died on Jan. 26. A celebration of life is set for Saturday, April 1 at St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church, 1022 Nelson St. The service starts at 1 p.m.

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