Gerry Howze, former executive director of PEARLS for Teen Girls, and Caitlin Cullen, who owned the popular Lindsay Heights restaurant The Tandem, developed a deep friendship that took root during a Zoom call three years ago during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The call had brought together recipients of the 2020 Betty Awards, an honor presented annually by Milwaukee Magazine as a tribute to the late Betty Quadracci, the magazine’s former publisher who founded Quad/Graphics with her husband, Harry.
“She just liked the way I was talking, and I liked how she was talking, so we started messaging each other back and forth,” said Cullen, who currently serves as food center director for Kinship Community Food Center in Riverwest. “A friendship started right there, and it really grew over the years.”
Howze died Sunday at the age of 56 after a two-year battle with cancer, with Cullen and others at her side.
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Howze had been part of PEARLS for Teen Girls for nearly three decades before stepping down as she dealt with a stage four cancer diagnosis. She started as the organization’s first program facilitator before becoming executive director in 2015.
PEARLS for Teen Girls began in 1993 as a volunteer effort to assist girls in middle school in developing social, emotional and practical skills that would prepare them to be empathetic and self-sufficient leaders. It has evolved to serving girls in fifth through 12th grades as they wrestle with interpersonal, educational and socioeconomic challenges.
Fighting back tears, Cullen reflected on the life of her friend and what made her so special.
“One of the things Gerry was excellent at that, and I’m not sure anybody else in this city can do, was seeing a whole person in just one glance,” Cullen said. “If she hugged you for the first time upon meeting you, you felt truly important to her. There was a deep spirit inside of her and she had so much to give to everybody else. Anybody that got near her got a chance to really feel that.”
Melissa Blue Muhammad worked for Howze at PEARLS for several years.
“She gave me a lot of opportunities to rise through the ranks and grow and learn and build character to become a leader myself,” Muhammad said. “In her later years, she became one of my closest friends. Our relationship became even strong after I left Pearls. She really became a friend and a sister.”
Muhammad, who is a jewelry maker and healing artist, said Howze’s legacy is one of “authenticity, love and leadership.”
“Gerry had a really big presence. Even though she wasn’t necessarily loud, here presence made you feel loved and special,” she said. “She treated a lot of people the way she treated me. She had this wonderful way of making you feel like you were the only one who was important, kind of like how a grandparent does when they make all their grandchildren feel like they are the favorite. Gerry had a way of making you feel that way.”
Howze had the ability to motivate those around her to discover their untapped potential.
“She was able to grow people to see what was inside of them that they might not even know was there,” Muhammad said. “She had the patience and the vision to extract that. Without her here, it’s left to those of us who she deposited some of herself into to continue that legacy.”
Rachel Moore, 28, first met Howze when she was a young child and would later become involved in PEARLS.
“Gerry could light up a room when she walked into it, no matter the circumstances,” Moore said. “She was always a person who you could rely on no matter what. I had a very significant health scare in 2015. She visited me in the hospital and did a lot of things for me to move on past that.”
As Howze battled cancer, Moore, who is employed as a certified nursing assistant, returned the favor.
“I felt like it was only fair that at the end of her life that I do the same,” she said. “I volunteered taking shifts with her and making sure she got her meds and washed up and things like that. I think it was hard for her to see a PEARLS Girl do something like that for her just because she was such a strong woman. She left this world way too soon and her work was not done. I’m a firm believer that a lot of girls in the city are who we are partly because of her.”
Moore said she and others will be certain to carry on Howze’s work and follow her example.
“Gerry would always tell us once a PEARLS Girl, always a PEARLS Girl,” she said. “Even in her death, and as hard as it was for a lot of people to see her go, I hope we continue to put our best foot forward. She would want us to move forward and continue to aspire to be great and do great things and be the light that she wanted us to be in the world and the light she was in the world.”
Moore adopted her daughter, Emerald, last year and made it a point to introduce her to Howze.
“Emerald spent several hours with her while she was on hospice at home. She’s a future PEARLS Girl,” Moore said. “I really wish she would have gotten the opportunity to work with Gerry like I did but while she won’t work with Gerry directly, she’ll work with a lot of people who had connections to her and are who they are because of her.”
Milwaukee attorney Shakia Smith, 30, met Howze when she became involved in PEARLS.
“One of the things she always told me was that she would never let me stand in my own way,” Smith said. “When I was in high school, I was very strong-minded and that would close doors for me, and she refused to let that happen anymore. No matter where I was, what I was doing with my life, she was always there as my biggest supporter and my biggest cheerleader.”
Howze served as a “second mother’ to those who took part in PEARLS, Smith said.
“We’ll remember everything she stood for and how she persevered, no matter what,” she said. “She was driven and kept going not matter what the obstacles were. We saw, over these last two years, her do exactly that.”
Howze will be greatly missed, and her leadership and mentorship will be difficult to replace, Smith said.
“Never ever will there be another Gerry Howze,” she said.
Howze had the unique ability to bring people from vastly diverse backgrounds together for meaningful discussions, Cullen said.
“We all understand politics in Milwaukee as being complicated, especially in regards to race,” she said. “Gerry was one of those people who could unify a room that didn’t know how to talk to each other. She could bring people from all different walks of life together in a way that felt genuine, not like a prop or a display. She could get a wealthy woman from the North Shore into a really serious conversation and create a true friendship with one of the young Black PEARLS girls here in the city who is facing very different things. She was able to connect people in a way that is truly a gift and calling. It’s obvious why she did what she did.”
As a teen parent and survivor of domestic violence, Howze arrived in Milwaukee from Chicago in search of a fresh start. She worked at Aurora Family Services, where she was mentored in leadership development, before landing the position with PEARLS for Teen Girls.
Howze leaves a significant legacy of working toward improving the lives of young women.
“Her legacy is showing this city and showing the country, because PEARLS was a nationally recognized organization, how important young Black women and young women, in general, are,” Cullen said.
Many of those who Howze mentored visited her in hospice care.
“To watch the parade of young women, and some who aren’t all that young anymore, come through and see that they are now nurses and healers and just really succeeding emotionally and financially in their lives,” Cullen said. “Some of these young women come from the harder parts of the city and have succeeded. Gerry just really made sure that everybody knew that even if it seemed impossible, they could own their strength and be whatever they want to be.”
Howze maintained an active life throughout her cancer battle, Cullen said.
“She reminded us that life is to be lived,” she said. “She got what was essentially a terminal diagnosis just a little over two years ago and in that time found love and married a wonderful woman who is now grieving so deeply. She didn’t let a doctor tell her that life was over. She remained alive the whole time. She got closer with family, she kept seeing friends, and started to build the idea of a life again outside of PEARLS because she couldn’t stay there with her health. She knew that every minute was worth it.”
A posting on the CaringBridge site stated that Howze died surrounded by family and friends. “In the moments right after she passed, her face became radiant and beautiful, and she looked so peaceful,” the post stated. “It was a comfort to those of us in the room, and I share it in hopes that it provides comfort to others, as well.”
Howze is survived by her wife, Paula, three children (Darion, Aaron and Heather) and daughter-in-law, Brooke.
A public celebration of Howze’s life will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 9th at Turner Hall Ballroom, 1040 Vel R. Phillips Ave. Those planning to attend are asked to wear colorful attire in honor of “Gerry’s vibrant spirit.”
“There was nobody like her and there won’t ever be,” Cullen said. “Milwaukee has a lot of figuring out to do now that she is not going to be here with us.”