Jacquelyn Howell - an inspiration to others

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Jacquelyn Howell of Monette is a fantastic lady and a true Buffalo Island Hero. Christmas always brings back fond memories for her, as well as the spirit of thankfulness. Her life has been a long journey, full of bumps in the road, but leading to fulfilling destinations.

Jacqueline Howell

During the 1940s and '50s people of Northeast Arkansas were caught up in the worldwide hysteria of summer after summer of the polio epidemic.

People were afraid to let their children go swimming in familiar streams or be in large crowds, in fear that they might somehow contact infantile paralysis and be left crippled or confined to an iron lung for the rest of their lives.

Children in family after family were randomly stricken with the viral disease called polio. First the families lived far away, then they were in nearby towns, and finally they were neighbors.

Jacquelyn Howell of Monette was just 12 years old when she felt her right knee buckle and her balance thrown off. Then she had to have help walking. Finally her parents, Jack and Boyce Howell, got the news they feared, she indeed had polio.

Jacquelyn was in the seventh grade at Childress High School, just north of Monette. She and her classmates had just attended the Mid-South Fair in Memphis and toured the exhibit of a large amplified iron lung on display there.

"I recalled how scary the machine was and thought how horrible it would be to have to lay in one of those machines," Howell said. "Little did I know then that I would soon be in one."

Jacquelyn's parents took her to St. Vincent's Hospital in Little Rock for treatment. The hospital wards were full of children, just like her, who had been diagnosed with infantile paralysis. She was having trouble breathing but did not want to tell anyone in fear they would put her in one of those machines. Her breathing difficulty soon became evident, and she was taken into surgery. Her nightmare became real when she woke up in an iron lung.

"My whole body was in the machine, with just my head sticking out," Howell said. "It was a very fearful thing, but I had no other choice but to endure it. My family encouraged me and gave me confidence that it was going to save my life. I was surrounded by other children who were going through just what I was going through, so I never felt alone.

"As I lay there I recalled that just weeks ago I was playing jump rope and jump board and running all over the place with the other children back at school. Now I couldn't move my arms or legs, or right arm. I only had the use of my left arm, and I was right handed. I learned that I was lucky to have the use of one arm, as many were not so lucky."

Howell had a lot of time to contemplate the days when she was so active and busy. She chopped and picked cotton on the family farm at Childress. She drove the small Ford tractor as the family gathered corn. She had gone on picnics with her classmates and to camp with her G.A. friends from church. Now she was confined to the iron lung.

"After two weeks they transferred me to the Children's Hospital in Little Rock," Howell said. "After being evaluated and thoroughly checked out, I was then sent to the Convalescent Home in Jacksonville. My parents could not stay with me, as I had three sisters, Janis, Mary Sue, and Nancy, and a brother Dickie back home for them to care for also.

"I had excellent care at Jacksonville and a private one-on-one tutor. My world had turned upside down, but I was never lonely. There were so many of us. I got letters from family and friends back home. I was fitted for braces but was never able to walk again. I had a nice wheelchair and was able to be mobile. We were a close-knit group and were kept busy."

"They brought in magic acts and all sorts of entertainment for us," she said. "My teachers were wonderful. I was determined to learn to use my left hand by making straight lines on a piece of paper. Soon I felt the sense of accomplishment of writing with my left hand."

Jacquelyn returned home and started back to school in the ninth grade at Childress.

"My father carried my wheelchair in the back of his truck and took me to school in the morning at first," Howell said. "I had all my classes in the morning. As I gained more confidence I rode the bus back and forth to school each day. We got two wheelchairs and my bus driver Loyd Bolin would lift me out of the wheelchair in front of my house and put me on the bus. Then I had the wheelchair on the bus to use for school, to go back and forth each day."

"My classmate Sherman Waters pushed me from class to class," she said. "My classmate Randal Pruitt pushed me to the lunch room each day. There were no special accommodations during that time for handicapped people, so I had to be pulled and lifted up existing stairs. Everything seemed to be an obstacle to overcome, and I accepted the challenge, with help from friends and family."

Jacquelyn went on to graduate from Childress High School in 1954.

"My parents didn't give me any choice, they were determined that I was going to college," Howell said. "I started to college at Southern Jr. College, now William's Brothers College, in Walnut Ridge.

"People are of the misconception that the government paid for a lot of things to help polio victims, but in reality they just paid for my books. The stairs were steep and the classes were far apart for someone in a wheelchair, but once again I had help from my friends. They would turn my wheelchair around and pull me up the stairs. One stretch was straight up and was quite scary to maneuver. Nevertheless it was just another challenge."

Jacquelyn graduated from Southern and then went on to Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia.

"My teachers were very encouraging and challenging," she said. "I majored in English and library science, as I thought I would be able to be successful as a teacher or librarian. I had been promised a job back at Childress when I finished, and had that set as my goal."

Howell graduated second in her class at Ouachita in 1958. She had to sit out a year at Childress as another teacher had already been hired to teach English. In 1959 she began her teaching career, which would go to serve her well for 39 years.

When Childress consolidated with Monette in 1961, Howell taught sixth grade one half of the day and was school librarian the other half. Monette went on to consolidate with Leachville in 1984 and she continued there as a full time librarian.

Ms. Howell's parents moved into the city of Monette, and she was fortunate to have high school boys push her back and forth from school just a couple of blocks away.

"Rain, shine, sleet or snow, we would head down the street to school, with umbrellas and books in tow," she said. "I recall Leland Gragg. Dale Parker, the Tilley boys, and Leland Chrisman volunteered to push my wheelchair to school each day. I was so fortunate to have them. They have all remained friends through the years.

"Later on we got a van with a wheelchair lift, and Mom drove the van. My father had farmed early in my life but went on to work at Emerson Electric Company in Paragould. He was always fixing up things here at home to make life better for me, and easier for me to get around.

"At school Janet Smith (Rolland) was my student librarian and was such a valuable help to me in the library. All my needs were met through the years by fantastic people who came in and out of my life. I have always had the knowledge that God would take of me, and He has.

"After my father died, my nephew Kevin Stewart became my life saver. He drove me back and forth to school each day from 1992-1998. By that time I had got a motorized wheel chair and it made getting back and forth between buildings much easier.

"I thought it was time for me to retire when technology came in, as I had difficulty with one hand and the many skills needed for keyboard access. However, the first thing I did after retirement was get a computer and learn how to use it effectively at home."

Just when Ms. Howell thought her challenges were over she developed breast cancer in 2003. She had surgery and went through 33 radium treatments but managed to regain her health again.

"I missed being out each day with co-workers, friends and students after retirement," she said. "I took up new hobbies. I started a card ministry and use email and FaceBook for extended correspondence."

Ms. Howell is a busy lady and well respected at Buffalo Island High School, the First Baptist Church where she attended for years, and the community in and around Monette. She was awarded the Buffalo Island Leadership Hero Award earlier this year. At the award presentation she was praised as a retired teacher and librarian who overcame polio and permanent paralysis of both legs and her right arm to become an inspiration and great influence to many people and school children that she has met along the way.

Like the Christmas seasons of her past, she is looking forward to this Christmas also. Siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews will all be at her house for Christmas dinner and a time for sharing gifts. Pies and cakes will be brought in along with traditional foods.

"Christmas memories abound this time of year," Ms. Howell said. "I recall toys, fruit, candy and our special Christmas trees. We woke up early to open our gifts and played and ate good food all day. Being home for Christmas is a wonderful thing, and having loved ones to share the special holiday is even better.

"Life is full of challenges. I have had my share, but I have also had a life full of victories and happiness. God has been good to me and blessed me with a wonderful family, many friends, and a sense of purpose. I remain grateful."

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  • Dear Cousin Jacquelyn,

    I am encouraged by this story. Having a cousin like you lets me know I can triumph through struggles just like you have. I had no idea about the obstacles you have had to overcome. It's simply amazing to me! I am proud to be your cousin!

    With Love,

    Angela Howell Ellis

    -- Posted by angelacellis on Sat, Jan 9, 2010, at 1:38 PM
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