Elisabeth Simon died peacefully on December 1, 2015 at her River Ranch home in Faywood, New Mexico, at 95 years of age. Elisabeth was a peace activist, a friend to many, and one of our guiding lights throughout her almost 30 years as a member of Gila Friends Meeting, serving in almost every capacity but most notably Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) and the Peace And Social Concerns Committee, of which she was the first convener.
Margaret Elisabeth Howe was born on March 20, 1920, in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, the second daughter of Mildred Powell Howe and Charles Preston Howe, in the same walnut bed where her father, two sisters, and brother were born. She was fond of saying that she had arrived early, before the doctor got there, “and I have been rushing ever since.” Her father founded an independent daily newspaper, so the Howe children learned to ask “who, what, when, where, and Howe,” with lively discussions about current events, politics, and human rights around the large dinner table, often with community leaders. Her avid newspaper reading throughout her life and her love of discussion stemmed from her family’s belief that an informed public is the cornerstone of democracy. David, her dearly loved younger brother, died at age 12 when Elisabeth was 14. The family emphasized that “what is important is what you do, what you give, and what is inside.” Elisabeth learned gardening from her mother, who had a beautiful herb and rose garden. They added a new rose each year.
Before Elisabeth’s junior year at De Pauw University, her family traveled to the Smoky Mountains, where they heard a schoolteacher friend say the people there were independent, but didn’t know how to eat well. That was when she realized she wanted to help people to eat better and grow gardens. She transferred to Penn State, where she studied home economics and nutrition. Elisabeth enjoyed interdenominational discussion groups at the YWCA, and on an activist trip to Washington she met her future husband, Gene Simon, their “chaperone” who was a teacher and in the PHD program in political science.
Married in her mother’s garden right after Elisabeth graduated in 1942, she and Gene lived in Baltimore before Gene went to the Pacific for three years in the Navy in World War II, and she returned to the family home. Upon Gene’s return, they lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Gene worked for several newspapers to learn the ropes and she became a gourmet cook, hosting his business associates. When Elisabeth’s father died in 1949, they moved to Tarentum, Pennsylvania. Gene took over the newspaper, now publicly owned, with the Howe sisters as majority stockholders.
They adopted two children, Janie and Jeffrey. Elisabeth wrote feature articles for the paper and nursed her grandmother, then her mother and Gene’s mother until their deaths. Active in the Methodist church and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, they marched on Washington for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. As Elisabeth taught Janie her love of gardening, they planted her grandmother’s farm with 17 acres of wildflowers. Elisabeth once appeared on the front page of the newspaper, sitting at the head of other garden club members blocking a highway bulldozer from the last patch of wild mountain laurel. She and Janie delivered meals on wheels and swam at the YMCA, whose Director introduced Elisabeth to Quakerism. However, the closest Quaker meeting was in Philadelphia, too distant for Elisabeth to attend. Heeding the Biblical quote, “I was a stranger and you took me in,” Elisabeth befriended international families, including those from India, China, and the Netherlands who remained lifelong friends and taught her authentic cooking from their homelands.
After Gene took over the newspaper, they expanded and won the Pulitzer Prize for the photo of a woman kneeling beside a dead Kent state student. Elisabeth hosted dignitaries and community organizers alike, often traveling the world as Gene did interviews for the newspaper, bringing back costumes and dolls, and other times traveling to international herb and alpine flower events in Switzerland and Austria. After the business bought five newspapers in the Phoenix area, Gene fell in love with the west and added the Ponderosa Ranch, near the Gila Wilderness, to the holdings. Upon Gene’s retirement the newspaper was sold, but they kept the Ponderosa, moving there in 1979 for two years before purchasing their River Ranch property in Faywood, New Mexico. Elisabeth began to plant the desert site to become the oasis it is today, complete with roses from their garden in Tarentum, Pennsylvania.
It was in New Mexico that Elisabeth became a part of the new Quaker worship group that began meeting in Josephine Coates’s home in Gila, then spread to Silver City and Mimbres Valley homes. Elisabeth was Gila Meeting’s local and regional representative to the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) beginning in 1984, when we first started organizing around the Sanctuary Movement to help Central American refugees, and the Simons hosted FCNL educational speakers at their home. She obtained fair trade products to generate money for Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City, along with our showing of the film El Norte. When the Quaker worship group became Gila Monthly Meeting within Intermountain Yearly Meeting in 1985, Elisabeth was one of our mentors. She organized petitions for world peace, to halt nuclear testing, and to stop military aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. With Quaker urging, New Mexico declared itself a sanctuary state for refugees and later abolished the death penalty. It was Elisabeth’s idea to “adopt” Nena MacDonald, a Quaker from Lubbock, Texas who was on trial in Tucson for participating in sanctuary activities. Elisabeth hosted Nena’s family for retreats at the Simons’ home in Faywood, and gave financial help along with proceeds from Gila Meeting’s Silent Art Auction. Nena said, “She helped me nourish my whole family, affirming my grandmother, Steve’s fathering, sharing my love of plants. She didn’t take sides, and encouraged conversation. She wanted to be an encourager and saw the goodness in everyone. Always delighted to see us, she was inspiring, loving, nurturing and compassionate.”
Elisabeth was approved as a convinced member of Gila Monthly Meeting in 1986, at age 66. She started our Peace and Social Concerns Committee, donated books to our Quaker library, and helped organize our first Hiroshima Day remembrance in 1986, a candlelight vigil for the Guatemalan disappeared people, and a border area refugee conference. In 1987, Elisabeth became our quarterly meeting’s representative to the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). After 1989, she began attending FCNL annual meetings and lobbying in Washington, helping craft a minute deploring the invasion of Kuwait and organizing petitions to ban land mines and prevent nuclear proliferation. An auto accident where she broke her neck in 1990 slowed her down… for awhile! For eight years she was one of seven members of Gila Friends Meeting who rotated in the role of Presiding Clerk. She was a supporter of Kate Brown and Roberta Jacoby’s pottery sale to benefit the El Salvador projects. Whether handing out peace book covers at the high school, registering voters, giving out information on tax day at the post office about military spending, marching in the 4th of July parade with a sign saying PEACE IS PATRIOTIC, standing in weekly vigils after the invasion of Iraq, or serving meals at the Gospel Mission, Elisabeth was an advocate for peaceful solutions to conflict. Always a philanthropist, we remember her with the checkbook as open as her heart to encourage and support individuals and organizations generously.
For Gila Friends Meeting Elisabeth and Gene hosted membership celebrations, numerous intergenerational fifth Sunday meetings, and family potluck Christmas days, and Granny D was a guest in their home during her last walk across the United States. Meeting at their ranch was always a joyous occasion, especially for families, with their animals, including peacocks, in attendance. Many of us remember receiving birthday cards and bouquets from Elisabeth, as well as notes when we were sick, grieving, or celebrating a happy occasion.
After she was hospitalized for congestive heart failure at age 89, Elisabeth attended meetings for worship less often but continued to serve on the Ministry and Oversight Committee. At age 90, Elisabeth urged the Meeting to send a thank-you letter to President Obama for his recent action to reduce our nuclear arsenal, and she was gathering information about border issues and possibilities for Gila Friends to support immigrants. In 2011 (before Gene died in 2012), the Simons obtained a New Mexico Land Conservancy easement to protect three miles of the Mimbres River. Elisabeth attended one local fifth-Sunday meeting with oxygen and in a wheelchair at age 94, and she served on one last clearness committee for membership before she entered hospice care.
On the last morning of her life, friends and family were quietly discussing how Elisabeth Simon, seemingly asleep, still had a razor-sharp memory for the names of friends and their families, their interests, and their activities when she opened her eyes and said brightly “I love people!” She had spent her last years “de-thinging,” giving away everything of value to her many friends. Her life was a testament to Gandhi’s statement: With every true friendship, we build more firmly the foundations on which the peace of the whole world rests.