Ester Howard left the family farm, where her father raised hogs and chickens, to attend Campbell Junior College in 1942 because she wanted to be a teacher. She was one of 10 children — six daughters and four sons — and all four brothers were overseas fighting in World War II when she enrolled in Buies Creek.
And while her college experience was defined by a war thousands of miles away — military exercises, rationing and letter-writing campaigns to support the troops — Campbell had a profound impact on Howard, and she would go on to become a strong advocate and supporter of her alma mater in the many years that followed.
Ester Howard died on March 11 at the age of 96. Campbell University will hold a memorial service honoring her life at 2 p.m. on April 11 at the Robert and Anna Gardner Butler Chapel. Interment will follow at Spring Hill United Methodist Church cemetery.
Born in Harnett County to Wade and Flora Jane Holder, Howard graduated from Campbell Junior College in 1944 and earned her bachelor’s degree from Meredith College and a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. Her career as an educator spanned 43 years – 20 years in the classroom and 23 in her role as supervisor of elementary education for Harnett County Schools until 1989.
During her career, she remained active as a Campbell alumna, serving as a member of the Board of Trustees, the Presidential Board of Advisors and president of the Harnett County Loyalty Campaign, which raised money for student scholarships. Howard herself established three scholarships at Campbell and was a donor to multiple capital campaigns, including the Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine, renovations for D. Rich Hall, Wiggins Memorial Library renovations, the John W. Pope Jr. Convocation Center, the Lundy-Fetterman School of Business, the Folwell Fountain and Garden and Butler Chapel.
In 1994, she was named a Distinguished Alumna of Campbell, and she received the prestigious Presidential Medallion in 2000. She also received the School of Education’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the North Carolina Baptist Heritage Award.
Howard was featured in a 2014 Campbell Magazine story about her friendship with Naomi Hinson, which began their freshman year in 1942 and lasted nearly 80s years. The girls, both of whom grew up on a farm, were paired as roommates in Treat Dormitory, and they hit it off on Day 1.
“I think the Lord put us together,” Hinson said back in 2014. “We had similar experiences coming in. Both of us were raised on a farm by Christian parents. Neither of us knew what it was like to stay home from church on a Sunday. My mother and father taught me how to make it when the time came to leave home. I met Ester’s mother and her brother and sister … their family was raised the same way. The Lord put us together. I really believe that.”
The friends also had the war in common. Hinson had three brothers in the military to Howard’s four. Howard’s cousin, Clyde Stewart, was killed in action, and one of Hinson’s brothers was wounded in Germany.
“All I remember during that time is [the war] was just a terrible, terrible thing,” Howard recalled. “It was a struggle for so many people. Not as much for those of us back home, but still a struggle. Food was rationed … I remember we had to ration our gas, our sugar and tea, and even our shoes. I remember vividly having to find a coupon or a ticket in order to buy shoes.”
Howard lived most of her life in her hometown, her home built along the Cape Fear River in the Keith Hills community. She was an active member in the greater Harnett County community, where she has served as president of the Cape Fear Friends of the Fine Arts Executive Committee and president of Friendly Homemakers, an organization under the direction of the state Cooperative Extension Agency.
She was named Woman of Distinction by the Gamma Pi Chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa, a sorority that recognizes outstanding educators, and she held life memberships in the Harnett County Friends of the Library, the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, the North Carolina Association of Educators, the Campbell University Friends of the Library,
Friends of Education, and the Friends of the Fine Arts. She was also a past president of the Buies Creek Woman’s Club, the Garden Club and the Buies Creek Book Review.
Howard was a member of Memorial Baptist Church in Buies Creek, where she faithfully served in the Chancel Choir, with the Welcome Committee, in the Music Committee, and as chairwoman of the Build the Fellowship Hall Committee.
In lieu of flowers, gifts in memory of Ester Holder Johnson Howard may be sent to: Ester H. Howard Research Fellows program at Campbell University, P.O. Box 116, Buies Creek, NC 27506.