TAMPA — For Florida audiences, Susan Howarth helped keep Big Bird on the job.
In 2011, when the state eliminated its funding for the state’s nonprofit public broadcasting stations, the future of the stations and programming like Sesame Street was thrown into doubt.
As president and chief executive of WEDU in Tampa, Howarth played an instrumental role in uniting broadcasters across Florida to lobby for the money to be restored, according to the WEDU website. The next year, it was.
"Her job was her life," said Howarth’s sister Ellie Lewis. "She loved what she did and was dedicated to it at all times."
Howarth died of cancer on Sept. 5. She was 66.
During her eight years running WEDU, Howarth also navigated the addition of two new channels, making the public broadcasting station the first in the nation to operate six channels.
What’s more, she led an expansion of programming at WEDU — including Emmy-winning original series and documentaries — and the acquisition of shows from WUSF-TV when West Central Florida’s other PBS affiliate left the air in 2017.
And it was Howarth who pushed WEDU to tackle homelessness, veteran’s issues and race relations by spotlighting organizations working locally to improve them.
"She said in a lot of markets, it is not uncommon for PBS to be seen as the nonprofit arm of the media world," said Jack Conely, WEDU’s interim president and chief executive. "She wanted to change that to the concept that we are the media arm of the nonprofit world."
Howarth was a 43-year veteran of public broadcasting and served as chief executive of WCET in Cincinnati before coming to Tampa as the fifth president of WEDU.
While she worked as executive director of Arkansas Educational Television in the 1990s, the channel played a role in a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing public broadcasting to restrict political debates it sponsored to major candidates only.
"The court has affirmed that we as government-licensed broadcasters have those same rights and freedoms (as private broadcasters) to be able to serve our viewers," Howarth said following the decision.
The case arose from Arkansas Educational Television’s refusal to invite a white supremacist candidate to a congressional debate.
"It is remarkable what she was able to accomplish coming from such humble beginnings," said Lewis, 61, Howarth’s sister.
Their mother was mentally ill, Lewis said, and after she permanently moved out to seek treatment, Howarth, the oldest sibling, took over household duties while their father worked as a home contractor in their hometown of Danbury, Conn.
"By the time she was 11 she was looking after three of us," Lewis said. "I can remember her teaching me to tie my shoes and tell time on a clock. It was not an easy childhood, but she willingly became my dad’s right-hand girl."
Howarth never let the workload at home slow her down at school.
"She was an incredibly hard worker," Lewis said. "She was always the straight-A student, treasurer of her high school class and a leader in her high school sorority."
Howarth’s father documented her successes through adulthood by hanging photos on what the family called the "Susan Wall of Fame."
"Our dad was so proud of her," Lewis said. "He had a lot to be proud of."
Born: Aug. 17, 1952
Died: Sept. 5, 2018
Survived by siblings Judy Howarth of Seymour, Conn.; John (Chris) Cowarth of Canton, Conn.; Richard Cowarth of Danbury, Conn.; Ellie Lewis of Southbury, Conn.; and nephews and cousins.
At her request, family said, there will be no service.
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected]ay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.