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Monday, July 14, 1997

Salado couple shared passions for church, each other


Associated Press

DALLAS - The morning Lela and Raymond Howard climbed into her maroon Oldsmobile and took off for Pioneer Days, a fiddling festival 15 miles away in Temple, her 57-year-old son implored her to let him drive.

"He was begging her, 'Let me take you,' " 43-year-old Rhonda Alford, one of Mrs. Howard's five grandchildren, recalled of that June 28 morning. "She said, 'No, we know where to go. We go every year.' "

On Saturday, the elderly couple were found dead in their vehicle, hidden by dense brush more than 350 miles from home near Hot Springs, Ark. Authorities said they apparently became disoriented and eventually drove off the road. No foul play was suspected.

It was a wrenching conclusion to two weeks of frantic searching by law enforcement agencies and relatives.

But family members said that if there were any consolation to be had, they found it in knowing the two were together at the end.

"They were pretty much inseparable," Cathy Drake, 53, said Sunday of her father and the woman he married in 1986 after both had lost spouses. "It was one of these kinds of relationships you don't really see happen that late in life."

Howard, 88, was a carpenter who helped build Fort Hood during the 1940s, had two daughters 12 years apart and was married to Ethel Howard for 53 years before her death.

Mrs. Howard, 83, was married nearly 40 years to a farmer, Jesse Copeland, and had worked as a beautician after her son and daughter were grown. On Saturday mornings, she liked to have granddaughter Rhonda do her hair, fixing it just so for Sunday church and her round of visits to family and friends during the week.

It was at that very church, First Nazarene in Belton, that she met her second husband. Both families had attended for years, and after Howard's wife died, they got to talking after Sunday morning and evening services.

"It didn't take them too long," Mrs. Drake said.

In short order they were married at a parson's house in San Antonio. The couple set up housekeeping at Mrs. Howard's home and pursued their mutual interests - socializing, going to church events, just getting out and about.

About two years ago, Raymond Howard was in a car accident and had to have surgery to relieve swelling in his skull, Mrs. Drake said. After that, he had headaches and memory problems for which a doctor prescribed medicine he declined to take. But he didn't stop driving until a few months ago when he hit a parked car with his pickup. His children took away the keys, sold the vehicle and told his wife never to let him drive again.

Mrs. Howard was in good shape physically and still drove the 10 miles to church, but had recently shown signs of forgetfulness and disorientation, especially late in the day, Mrs. Alford said.

"The last couple of months, it was getting to the point where my mom and her brother were going to have to do something," Mrs. Alford said. "In the morning she was just really with it, but by afternoon she was just tired or something wasn't quite right."

Raymond Howard's side of the family brought up the possibility of a home health aide, but the couple declined.

Now at least some family members regret that they didn't intervene somehow.

"We wish we would have disabled the car or taken the keys," said Charlotte Copeland, Mrs. Howard's daughter-in-law, "but you can always look back and think of things you could have done."

Funeral arrangements are pending until Arkansas authorities complete autopsies. Send a Letter to the Editor about This Story | Start or Join A Discussion about This Story
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