Among the countless contrasting scenes of hope amid despair in Newtown this week, Thursday in the middle of town was as stark as it gets: Hundreds of mourners lined up at the Honan Funeral Home, a doleful black line in the waning light of the seventh day. A few doors down across the street, Beth Howard handed out slices of apple pie to anyone, an energetic spirit in a red wool coat, spreading healing cheer one paper plate at a time.
This is her mission, in Newtown and across the country. Journalist, author, pie-baker, impulsive traveler, Howard brings the gospel of pie from her 24-foot RV, "Pie Across the Nation," from her Pitchfork Pie Stand in the famous American Gothic House in Iowa and from her heart, which was broken three years ago with the sudden death of her 43-year-old husband.
Since that day in August, 2009, Howard has tested her idea that pie can help ease grief, chronicled on her web site, TheWorldNeedsMorePie.com, and in her book, "Making Piece, a Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie."
"It rips your heart out," Howard said, looking toward the wake of a child across the street. "But the fact that we can warm their hearts a little bit…it helps. I've been through the darkness and I've come out the other side."
"It's just pie, but really it's so much more than that. It feeds the soul…It's about simplicity, it's about comfort, it's about sharing."
It's a team effort, uniting old friends. When the tragedy unfolded, Howard was at home in Eldon, Iowa where she lives in the house that inspired Grant Wood's masterpiece.
On her Facebook page, she posted:
"Overwhelmed and heartbroken by the today's tragedy, I feel like packing up my pie supplies into my RV and driving to Connecticut. If making pie and sharing it with the citizens of Newtown would help ease their pain I would load up a hundred cases of apples and start driving right now."
The response was enormous. The next day she left in the RV. She picked up Mike Nahra in Chicago, a friend from the Davenport High School class of 1980 that she had not seen in decades. Two other old friends traveled to Newtown.
Along the way, they stopped in New Jersey, where friends were busy making 240 pies, all by hand. By Tuesday, they made it to the grieving town.
"I was nervous that people would think we're imposing, and it's been the opposite," Howard said, speaking into a CNN camera. "It's been a privilege to be able to be here, to be able to help."
On Thursday morning, Howard and her friends taught pie-making at Newtown High School, emerging with 30 more pies. As they handed out slices, the response was universally positive, some townspeople joining in the effort, mourners stopping or perhaps just walking by, mustering a "thank you" through tears.
On Friday, the group is baking more pies with local elementary school children in the upstairs kitchen of Edmond Town Hall, the historic building that's now a theater and civic gathering space. At Edmond on Saturday, town leaders will give out hundreds of teddy bears to children of Newtown, yet another uplifting gesture of the sort that makes Beth Howard fit right in.
"I don't want to leave," she said, leaning on the RV parked in front of the town hall. "I don't have to leave. I've got my home here."