June 29, 2016

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The Dash Between: Wilda Howard ‘would help anybody that was in any kind of situation’

The dates of birth and death that appear like bookends on a tombstone do not matter as much as the dash between those dates. Award-winning writer Alana Baranick has made her living writing about the dash between. She’s focusing on Medina and Lorain counties and those who have made our area the unique and interesting place it is. Look for her stories on the first Monday each month in The Gazette and visit www.medina-gazette.com to find additional photographs.
To suggest a story or make a comment, contact Baranick at abaranick@chroniclet.com or (440) 865-2518.
Today, Alana Baranick examines The Dash Between July 21, 1949, when Wilda Howard was born in Wadsworth, and Dec. 7, 2011, when the former Medina City Council president, formerly known as Wilda Bell, died at age 62.

When Wilda Howard, known to many Medina Countians as former Medina City Council President Wilda Bell, joined Second Baptist Church of Medina, the ministers recruited her to run their newly created resource assistance ministry.

Wilda, who died Dec. 7, at age 62, helped church-goers, as well as nonmembers, file taxes, apply for assistance programs and, in general, navigate through government bureaucracy.

Wilda Howard, center, with her son, Malachi Bell III and daughter, Robinette Vetter. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HOWARD FAMILY)

“She was on many committees within the church and reorganized the Second Baptist Food Pantry to enable the church the ability to offer food to people less fortunate,” her sister Rubi Medley said. “She did not want to see anyone struggle or fall, if she could help. She lived her life for her family and anyone and everyone without thinking of herself.”

At the church, Wilda used the skills she had developed during her six years on City Council and her more than 30 years with Summit County Job and Family Services, where she served as ombudsman.

“Whatever it was, she was willing to help and point people in the right direction,” the Rev. Cornell Carter of Second Baptist said. “She had a natural affection for children … helping families with children and advocating for their benefit.”

In 1985, Wilda became the first black person elected to Council in Medina. News media pointed to this feat as especially impressive because only 3 percent of the population was African American.

Two years later, she became the first black woman to be elected as president of a city council in Medina County. She made accessibility to City Hall for the average Joe her priority in public office.

She was born Wilda Howard on July 21, 1949, in Wadsworth, where her great-grandparents were among the city’s first black residents. They had moved to Wadsworth from Chesterfield County in eastern Virginia.

“They came to work in what they were told was a silver mine,” said Wilda’s brother Wilbur Howard. “It was a salt mine.”

Wilda’s father, also named Wilbur, was a caseworker for Summit County Welfare and helped implement the Aid for the Aged program, according to family. He also played piano to entertain diners at such places as the Tangiers supper club and Brown Derby restaurant.

Her mother, Mildred, worked in the central supply department at Wadsworth-Rittman Hospital. She was responsible for sanitizing surgical equipment.

Wilda had two older sisters and four younger brothers. She also had a half sister from her father’s first marriage.

She grew up as part of the congregation at Wadsworth First Baptist Church.

In 1967, Wilda graduated from Wadsworth High School, where she performed in a play, sang in the choir and was one of only two blacks in her class.

After high school, she worked at a nursing home and went to nursing school before taking a job with the Summit County Human Services Department.

She also married, became known as Wilda Bell and raised three children: her daughter, Robinette Vetter, son, Malachi Bell III and great-nephew Brandon. She went back to using her maiden name Howard after getting divorced.

While serving as president of Medina City Council in 1991, Wilda volunteered on Habitat for Humanity’s first house-building project in Medina. Her unpaid duties included driving a city-owned truck that was used for hauling building supplies. She told reporters she volunteered because the city insisted the truck be driven by someone covered by the city’s insurance.

“She would help anybody that was in any kind of situation, if it were in her power,” her brother said.

View photos at SmugMug

Carter called Wilda “a strong woman of faith.”

“When she was first diagnosed (with cancer) in June, she was prepared for the ups and downs, the twists and turns that would come about from suffering with an illness like cancer,” Carter said. “She still managed her life so that she lived out all of her values and priorities and commitments. She was keenly aware that death was imminent. Yet her main concern was her children and all her surrogate children.”

Wilda did what she could to prepare them for continuing with life in her absence.

“It was motivating,” Carter said. “She did not allow (her illness) to dim the passion she has for people. We gained even more respect for her as a person.”

Earlier this year, Medina Mayor Dennis Hanwell appointed Wilda to the city’s Charter Review Commission. Her term would have expired in 2015.

“She was my rock. She was my pride and joy,” her sister said. “She just amazed me at her ability to make things happen, when she knew they needed to happen.

“Wilda told me that everyone has a book about their life and their achievements somewhere and, if you keep your book straight, there will be a place in heaven for you. She said, ‘You don’t want to get to the Pearly Gates and have a mark on your book that you can’t explain.’

“So that is how she lived. No marks.”