Carol Penelope (Penny) Mathis Howard was conceived above the library in Clinton, Iowa, where her parents, both educators, lived at the time. She was born on August 6th, 1936, in a Des Moines hospital into a family of pioneering agriculture entrepreneurs on both her Mathis and Sorenson sides in the Elkhart area. She moved with her parents from Clinton to rural Elkhart when she was two years old. She passed on to her next grand adventure, gracefully, peacefully, surrounded by members of her loving family, on April 9th, 2022.
Penny was a delightful, beautiful child, active in church and the family seed corn business where she helped nurture her four younger siblings. She was a charter member of the Tip Top 4-H club. She was valedictorian of the class of ‘55 at Elkhart High School. She had a close bond with her grandparents, a special life-long friend and cousin, Sandra Sorenson Parmenter, and remained friends with classmates and many dear neighbors though the years.
While attending a softball game at sixteen she caught the eye of a Californian, Ken Howard, who was working on his uncle’s farm in nearby Polk City. His friends told him he’d never snag her. Penny had planned to marry a farmer so she could live in the country, but she had a keen sense of intuition and somehow knew Ken would be a devoted husband. They were happily married on July 1st, 1956. Although a bit on the dry side, they enjoyed a sampling of their wedding cake on every anniversary for sixty-five years. The top of the original cake was a fruit cake which was stored in a tin box in Penny’s cupboard the entire time.
Her deep affinity for nature, was a lifelong passion. She loved hanging her clothes on the line to dry (or in the basement if the temps were below freezing.) She preferred to dine alfresco.
While in California, Penny graduated from Orange Coast College, became a mother, enjoyed the beach, her neighbors and going to Indian Maidens, where she and Candi were Big and Little Singing Forest. Penny commented that she sure enjoyed the years in town in Costa Mesa. She always stated that whatever stage of life, place, time, or season she was in, it was her favorite. She and Ken traded the sunshine and calm weather to move back to Iowa while their children were in elementary school to pursue their love of country life, picnics, and county fair. She was a faithful little league mom and shared her skills as a 4-H leader both in California and in Iowa.
Penny loved being with people. Everyone loved Penny, as was evidenced by friendly fighting over who got to check in on her after Ken died. Shortly after her arrival in Iowa she joined ‘Town Club,’ a group of women that began in the Alleman area. The club was a familiar gathering later in life as members continued attending, even as they moved to surrounding communities. The White Oak Card Club, which Penny and Ken attended together for more than 40 years was a playful outlet to commune with neighbors. She was a vibrant resident of White Oak for nearly fifty years.
At fifty she got her first paying job, off the farm, at the Kirkendall Public Library in Ankeny, where she was admired by many patrons and fellow employees. As an avid reader, she delighted in her access to a treasure load of books. She served in that capacity for twenty years part time while maintaining an enviable household.
When Penny spoke, everyone listened to her enchanting wisdom and beautiful humor. She was a strong role model expressing herself respectfully with politeness and grace; we always trusted the authenticity of her words and appreciated her candid insight. She was a rule follower, instigating change discretely and courteously. Mostly she was a beautiful blend of curiosity and acceptance.
Penny was an outstanding record keeper. She maintained a lifelong notebook for every movie she ever attended. It contained a newspaper cutout of the movie advertisement, the date, location it played and who she saw it with. As a newlywed, she kept a ledger of every dime spent as she managed their $3000 annual salary. Penny was a charter member of the Ithaca book club and kept a list of every book the club discussed. Her home was adorned with an amazing collection of swans, family heirlooms, a diverse group of friends, pumpkins, and bittersweet. She managed a gigantic garden of vegetables, made the creamiest sweet corn and warm applesauce, and produced an abundance of tomatoes.
As the family matriarch, she was an excellent resource for the ancestry records, keeper of the best family recipes, and traditions.
Penny prioritized family. She spent a week in the summer, for close to thirty years with her mother and sisters to attend Quadwee, a family retreat usually held at Iowa State University, about forty years attending Metanoia, an ecumenical woman’s retreat in the woods outside of Newton, and Quadrennial, an inspirational gathering of Disciples of Christ women from around the globe. She also followed in her parent’s footsteps politically, an advocate for social justice with a great acceptance of all types of people. At caucus time Penny and Ken went separate directions, fully respecting one another’s differences, neither uttered an unkind word. Penny was a gift from God to all who knew her.
Penny is survived by her daughter, Candi (Gary) Bengtson, from Carroll Iowa, and son, Jon (Teri) Howard from Columbus, Nebraska, brothers (Alan Elmer) Chip Mathis and (James Harvey) Jim (MaryAnn) Mathis and sisters Pamela Fitzgerald and Di Mathis, brother-in-law Norm (Donna) Howard, sister-in-law Carolyn (Dave) Hastings, grandchildren Justin Bengtson, Kendra (Adam) Haluska, Brock (Nicolle) Bengtson, Autumn Sky Burns & Logan Howard, and great grandchildren, Reece and Myles Burns, Jerzey, Jace, Jett and Jordi Haluska, and many nieces and nephews, neighbors and friends.
Penny is preceded in death by her parents, RC & Dorothy Mathis, her husband, of 65 years, Ken Howard, his parents, Lawrence, and Helen (Dann) Howard, her grandparents, John, and Ella (Ball) Sorenson and Elmer and Maude (Cunningham) Mathis, a sister-in-law Sue Mathis.
Memorial services and visitation will be held on Monday, April 18th, at the Elkhart Christian Church, where she and Ken were married. Visitation from 9 to 10:45 and the service will be at 11 AM. In honor and celebration of Penny’s Love of Life, you’re welcome to wear purple. The family requests no flowers. Memorial contributions can be made to Penny’s long-time treasure, Iowa Public Television.
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