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Barbara Howard – One of Gwinnett’s Greatest Treasures

For the past several decades Gwinnett County has been showered with amazing people who have shared their time, their talent and their wealth to make the county a better place for its citizens to live.  Few have made a greater impact than Barbara and her late husband, Henry Howard.

Barbara Howard receiving the Legacy Award at the GMC Foundation Gala. L-R: Dr. Carlton Buchanan, Barbara and Phil Wolfe

As owners of Susanna’s Kitchen, a Georgia-based food processing company, the Howard’s had given back to Gwinnett in many ways since the early 70s when they moved here after their once-failing business became more successful than they had ever imagined.

Barbara Howard recalls how in 1960 the demand for their precooked frozen meat products was so great that they nearly went bankrupt trying purchase the raw materials to supply their customers.

“We didn’t even know we were almost bankrupt until we went to Mills B. Lane at C&S Bank for a loan,” she laughed. “A young loan officer, Gus Connelly, was assigned to our account and he tried to sell us, but we had nothing to sell!”

A seven-year capital loan allowed them to “get started” in commercial cold storage in DeKalb County. During the process, they also met Lane’s then-secretary, Celeste Sigmund who had a side business making and selling Brunswick stew. Sigmund, who later became the first woman C&S Bank vice-president, had been looking for a distribution partner, so she swapped her recipe for stock in the company. 

“The recipe came from the lady who was her ‘mammy’ growing up,” Howard shared. “Her name was Susanna.”

Barbara Howard Thus the company became known as Susanna’s Kitchen and their best-selling product?  Susanna’s Brunswick Stew.

The Howard’s moved their successful business to Gwinnett in1993 when they built a new $6,000,000 “state of the art” plant on Buford Highway at North Berkley Lake Road in Duluth with money from Gwinnett County revenue bonds.

Their journey to make Gwinnett a better place to live began shortly after moving to Duluth in the early 70s, when they became involved with the American Cancer Society (ACS). 

Linda Nash Edwards, who retired from the ACS in 2009 as the then-South Atlantic Division V.P. for Business Unit Development, remembers well when the Howard’s became involved.

“A state-level volunteer, the late Bob Womack, recruited them. They came in gangbusters and were involved for years to come,” she recalled.

Edwards call Barbara Howard, “the perfect volunteer.”

“If you looked in the dictionary under ‘perfect volunteer,’ her name would be in there,” she stated. “Barbara had wonderful leadership skills, was engaging, humble, dependable and reached out to people.

“She was the kind of volunteer that every non-profit wants to have, and Henry was right there supporting her in everything she or the ACS did.”

Through the years, Barbara Howard worked in both patient services and fundraising, and she and her husband chaired the Education /Funds Crusade in Gwinnett. Edwards said that she was involved in practically every special event fund-raiser the ACS held.

The first fundraiser they helped with was the ACS Golf and Tennis tournament held at the Atlanta Athletic Club in 1977, which raised $30,000. “The Howard’s had all the contacts at the club and chaired that very successful tournament for several years,” Edwards said.

Both the Howard’s served on the ACS board/Leadership Council, and along with Gwinnett Citizen editor, Carolyn Bagheri, she started the Gwinnett Auxiliary, a group of women who raised money for the ACS. Initially, the group held fashion shows at the Atlanta Athletic Club, headed by Barbara Howard. Later she led the ACS Tour of Homes. But the group is best known for their very successful annual Hope Fashion Show, which through the years raised tens of thousands of dollars. The show also honored cancer survivors, one of which was Barbara Howard, by then, a breast cancer survivor, who served every year as one of the “survivor models,” gracefully modeling fashions at the close of the shows.

L to R: Barbara Howard, Paige Havens and Kathryn Parsons Willis.

L to R: Barbara Howard, Paige Havens, and Kathryn Parsons Willis.

The couple became involved with the Gwinnett Hospital Foundation when it was formed in the 1980s as charter members and gave lead gifts for the Gwinnett Medical Center in Duluth.

Sadly, Henry Howard passed away in 2004, from bladder cancer. But his wife carried on with their service and dedication to helping others.

In February, Howard received the Gwinnett Medical Foundation’s prestigious Legacy Award for her dedication to the medical center and generous giving through the years.

“When you walk into that Duluth hospital and see the picture (of Barbara and Henry Howard) on the wall in the lobby, you know they have been generous,” Gwinnett Medical Center (GMC) President/CEO Phil Wolfe commented in the video shown at the gala when she received the award.

Like all who know her, Jason Chandler, president of the Foundation, is generous with his praise of Howard. “She was one of the first lead gifts for our concussion center and has given to sports medicine and of course, cancer care.

“After she broke her hip, she showed up at a special event in the community a few weeks later. 

“I’m thinking, there’s no excuse for the rest of us,” he marveled. “It’s like if I have a cold, I have to go because Barbara went, and she broke her hip.”

“She’s one of the most generous, unselfish people that I know,” stated Kathryn Parsons Willis of Duluth.

Other words describing her in the video were “energetic,” “enthusiastic,” “inspirational,” “a trooper,”  and “lives for others.”

Barbara and Sandra Strickland

Barbara and Sandra Strickland.

The Foundation’s Legacy Award is not the first time the Howard’s have been recognized for their hard work and generosity. Since 1984 they annually receive the ACS Excalibur Award for generosity in giving. In 2005 Henry Howard was posthumously given the Gwinnett Chamber Legacy Award. Barbara Howard was recognized by the Chamber as their Citizen of the Year in 2013 and has been a recipient of the United Way Women’s Award.

Rainbow Village in Duluth, which provides transitional housing for homeless families, also has been a recipient of the Howard’s generosity and when Barbara Howard was their campaign chair in 2010, they raised $6M.  She also has been a volunteer with Aurora Theatre and has supported them since 2000 and Hud-gens Center for the Arts since 1974.

Today, Barbara Howard is enjoying retirement after serving Susanna’s Kitchen as its president for 55 years. The Howard’s son, Brad is CEO, having taken that position at his dad’s passing.

“The company is employee-owned now,” Barbara Howard said. “It’s one of the premier small food companies in the country and is the number one co-packer in the country.”

And like its founders, Susanna’s Kitchen gives back to the community. As their website says, they reinvest a significant portion of their time and profits back into the community where they live through their employees, civic organizations and religious institutions.

Evidence of their giving is beautifully evident on Duluth’s Town Green where the company’s donation helped make the “Dream keepers” sculpture possible.  Their contribution also is helping make possible the WWII memorial that will be in the new Peachtree Corners Town Centre.

“We always felt like Gwinnett so good to us,” Howard reminisced. ”The industrial revenue bonds we received from the county enabled us to build our “new” building in Gwinnett in 1992.

“I always loved and believed in the “Gwinnett is Great” slogan that was on the big water tank off I-85 for so many years. Gwinnett helped make it possible for us to prosper and we always wanted to give back in every way we could.”

Indeed, the Howard’s have left their footprint across Gwinnett County, and few have surpassed the unselfish sharing of their success.

Henry Howard once said that their business “grew to be a great company not through genius on our part, but because we have been blest with divine guidance.” He believed that giving back was the only way to live. 

“Henry’s belief in giving back did not die with him as evidenced by Barbara’s continued generosity,” Edwards said. “They were two of the most giving, generous people I’ve ever known. Barbara is continuing that legacy which will live on for decades to come.”