Beth Howard pulled up to Newtown in her 24-foot-long camper, loaded with 240 apple pies.
She dished out pie to kids from Sandy Hook Elementary School, grieving parents and anyone who asked.
She describes herself as an attaché for grief, with her greatest gift being pie “made from love.” Most people simply call her “the pie lady.”
“Pie is meant to be shared,” she said. “It’s meant to be given away.”
As she spoke, there was a knock on her door. Women preparing a wake for one of the slain girls would like some pie for mourners.
“Could we give them three pies?” a helper asked.
“Of course,” Howard said. “Will you please put ribbons on them?”
Her 1,100-mile journey here began with a Facebook post last Friday. Like the rest of the nation, she was horrified by the massacre that killed 26 people at the school, including 20 children.
She told her Facebook friends that she was considering loading her RV up with baking supplies and heading to Newtown.
She lives in Eldon, Iowa, in the American Gothic home where artist Grant Wood got his inspiration for his most famous painting — the farmer couple with a pitchfork. She sells pies there from the Pitchfork Pie Stand.
Within two hours, she had $2,000 in donations.
“I felt like, how could I not go with that groundswell of support?” she said.
She hit the road at 8 a.m. Saturday. She picked up a friend in Chicago and cruised to another friend’s home in Flanders, New Jersey, where she “walked into this pie-baking mania.” More than 60 volunteers were peeling apples and making dough throughout the neighborhood. One family made 60 in a single day.
“They were making pies for Newtown because of this one Facebook comment,” she said. “That was a powerful thing.”
After several days of intense baking, she posted on her The World Needs More Pie website at 8:45 a.m. that the pies were done and en route: “We’re on our way to Newtown, Connecticut, now to hand out slices of pie, gift pies to funeral receptions and grieving families, and later in the week bake more pies with residents of the community.”
They went straight to the Newtown Youth Academy where therapy dogs helped children cope with the horror at their school. Parents were there too. One mother said she realized she hadn’t eaten since before the tragedy. She was glad to eat apple pie.
Another father explained his two sons knew one of the slain children.
“He was talking about how he was talking with his children about the grief, and they seemed to have had a very open conversation about it,” Howard said. “That was very encouraging to hear.”
“It’s a pretty positive energy over there, I have to say. There’s grief, but there’s also an amazing spirit here. It comes through very loud and clear,” she added.
An author, blogger and TV host, Howard knows about grief: Her husband, Marcus Iken, died three years ago of a ruptured aorta. She poured her grief into baking pies.
“Why pie? Answering that is about as easy as explaining why seemingly healthy Marcus dropped dead at the age of 43,” she wrote in her book, Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie. “If only the answer was as easy as ‘It was his time.’”
Relaxed in her pie-filled RV, she elaborated. “What I learned is people don’t like to talk about grief,” she said. “That’s a big reason why I’m here.”
“If I just keep slicing pie, that helps me. It’s not a cake that you make with a little mixer. This is something made by hand,” she said. “The pioneers made pie; the pilgrims made pie. It’s about endurance. It’s about nurturing. It’s about simplicity. It’s about nostalgia. And ultimately, for me, it’s about sharing and it’s about giving.”
Her love of pie goes back to her parents’ courtship. One night, her mom baked a banana crème pie. When the two finished, her father said, “Will you marry me?”
“Pie makes me happy,” she said. “It makes people happy. It makes me want to do something nice for somebody else.”
Another resident knocks on her door. She wanted a pie for her family and for a friend’s. A smile grew across her face when she was given two.
Howard smiled too.
“People smiled today,” she said. “And that alone was worth the drive.”
So far, she has raised $7,000 in donations. Any extra money — after gas and pie expenses — will be donated to a local grief counseling center.