Hanging on the west wall of St. James’ church is a framed list of those in the parish who served in the first World War. The “Roll of Honour” was donated in 1919, and is exceptional in that it ends with the name of a woman, under the handwritten heading of “Nurse.”
Vera Winchester Howard (1888-1979) was born at Baptist Corners, Owasco, and graduated from the Skaneateles Academy in 1909. She attended the Rochester Institute of Technology and Columbia University. She served as chief dietician at Bellevue Hospital in New York City (where, when the staff asked her to buy more tender cuts of meat, she ordered sharper knives). And when it became clear that the U.S.A. was about to enter World War I, Howard became a part of a field hospital unit being formed at Bellevue.
In 1918, Howard’s hospital unit went to Vichy, France. As the first to arrive, the Bellevue group was designated “Base Hospital No. 1” and set up in converted hotels. The first patients, 252 French wounded, arrived April 9, 1918, and 358 Americans came two days later.
As chief dietician, Howard worked in the basement kitchen of Vichy’s Carlton Hotel. One of her many tasks was to prepare nourishment for men who could not take food by mouth, e.g. an eggnog that could be poured into a tube stitched into a man’s stomach.
Dr. Anne Tjomsland, who was with the unit, recalled, “There were nurses, dieticians, ward masters and ward surgeons who spent nearly their entire salaries providing extras for the sick patients, but no one ever talked about it. Miss Howard was seen in a shop one day, trying to get some honey in lieu of sugar. She had forgotten the word for honey and began buzzing around the shop, imitating bees. The amused proprietress handed out what seemed like an extra amount.”
By March of 1919, Base Hospital No. 1 had cared for 8,142 surgical cases and 7,481 medical cases. And Vera Howard had seen that they were all fed. With peace in Europe, the Bellevue unit sailed for home.
In 1943, Howard retired to Skaneateles and lived with her widowed sister, Ethel Smith, on Leitch Avenue. Her retirement was as active as her working life. Vera Howard was a founder of the St. James’ Thrift Shop, and celebrated her 90th birthday in 1978 at a St. James’ coffee hour, an indomitable woman of strength and spirit.
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An interesting footnote: At the 2004 Skaneateles Living History performance at Lake View Cemetery, Vera Howard was portrayed by Pilar Castro Kiltz, today the founder/CEO of More Canvas, an arts consulting and strategy firm, and Ensemble Dance, a dance theater company, both in New York City.