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Marilyn Lenore Howard

Marilyn Lenore Howard, 81, Idaho’s former State Superintendent of Public Instruction, died Monday, July 13, 2020, at her home in Eagle, at the end of a day spent with family.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

Marilyn was born April 18, 1939, at Pocatello, to Carol and Jim Pritchett. She grew up on the family farm outside of Mackay, and for the rest of her life kept property in her beloved Lost River Valley. Farm life was difficult – the family home did not have electricity until Marilyn was in high school – but she credited it with teaching her the value of hard work. Although her parents left school early, her father after elementary school and her mother after the eighth grade, they believed education was important, and both Marilyn and her brother Marshall graduated from the University of Idaho. She later earned a master’s degree at the UI and a doctoral degree from Brigham Young University.

While at the UI, Marilyn met Bob Howard, also an educator. They married in 1960 and together had two daughters, Laura and Linda. Although they later divorced, they remained friends until Bob’s death in 2019.

Marilyn’s teaching career included stints at Lewiston, Blackfoot, Arco, and Kahlotus and Royal City, WA. While at Arco, she wrote a grant that funded the town’s senior center and other grants that added school aides and led to significant increases in the district’s reading scores. In 1988 she was appointed principal at Moscow’s West Park Elementary School, a position she held for a decade before being named supervisor of the Moscow School District’s Developmental Pre-School. She also served as adjunct faculty at Idaho State University and at the UI in reading and language arts.

Over the years Marilyn developed a specialty in early literacy, and served as state coordinator and state president of the International Reading Association as well as a member of the association’s National Research and Studies Committee. She served on and led accreditation teams evaluating Idaho’s teacher education programs, and her research and publications focused on techniques to help all students read with ease and understanding.

In 1998, Marilyn was elected Idaho’s 23rd State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the last Democrat elected to statewide office in Idaho. Her daughter Laura recalls that as a candidate, Marilyn had a vision – “a vision to improve learning for all of Idaho’s children and to elevate and encourage teachers statewide.” That support for teachers continued in Marilyn’s last piece of public writing, a guest opinion she wrote in 2020 as the state’s public schools grappled with the coronavirus. Her op-ed concluded: “It’s clear there is a new respect and appreciation for all the workers who provide services we now recognize as essential: for the paramedics and firefighters, the nurses, the physicians, and, yes, for our teachers. I take every opportunity to thank teachers for the work they do. I hope you will, too.”

The start of Marilyn’s first term in office coincided with a legislative focus on reading competency in early grades, and with her new staff she developed the first Idaho Reading Indicator, an assessment of reading skills among Idaho’s K-3 grade students. A $6.7 million grant Marilyn secured through the federal “Reading First” program was used to train K-3 teachers to improve student reading skills. She also led Idaho’s implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which included development of a transparent school report card to help identify each school’s performance.

Marilyn’s signature program was “Dinner and a Book,” in which she asked parents to spend 20 minutes each day reading to their children and to make the family dinner hour a time of conversation for children. She said the genesis of the idea came as she campaigned for office and heard from many senior citizens that their fondest memories were of the long talks they had with their parents as they grew up. She said she knew the program was catching on when a reader board at a lumber company asked whether parents had read to their children for 20 minutes on that day.

Following her re-election and a second term in office, Marilyn retired from state service in 2006. Afterwards she worked with the US Department of Education on several programs and served on a variety of boards, two of which – Garden City’s Learning Lab and Boise’s Wassmuth Center for Human Rights – were important to her core beliefs. She also continued to support civic education and encouraged efforts to prepare students to be knowledgeable and thoughtful citizens.

In 2002, Marilyn’s daughter Linda Howard King was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Daughter Laura recalls that “it changed all of us. We made every second count. My Mom might have been courtside by day in the Legislature but let me assure you she was bedside by Linda in the evenings and when it mattered most.” Always a traveler who enjoyed visiting other countries, Marilyn turned her attention to family gatherings. Laura recalls that her favorite trip was one she and Linda planned: taking their mother to Napa Valley’s Culinary Institute as a 75th birthday gift, where Marilyn – an expert pie maker – and her daughters spent an entire week baking and building memories.

Her family remembers Marilyn as a smart, curious, humble and encouraging woman who adored her daughters’ husbands and teased and cheered them on. She and Laura’s husband John competed each Christmas to see who could win the “tackiest chicken and cow contest” as they exchanged the worst examples they could find. Son-in-law Brent King reported that among the lessons he learned from watching Marilyn were “Don’t be afraid to try something difficult,” “Grit is important,” “Use your supports where you have them,” “Know your own mind,” “Be kind,” and “Don’t mess with women. They are a force to be reckoned with.” He added, “ Watching Marilyn and her peers made me realize what a group of ‘doers’ women naturally are, and how they support each other. Guys could sure take lessons from them.”

Marilyn is survived by her daughter Laura Howard Reardon, sons-in-law John Reardon and Brent King, grandsons Jesse King and Ryan King, and numerous other relatives. She was preceded in death by her brother Marshall Pritchett and her daughter Linda Howard King.

Donations may be made in Marilyn’s memory to the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights, home of the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, 777 S. 8th St., Boise, ID 83702 (or Funds received will support the center’s new library and conference room, to be named in Marilyn’s honor.

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