By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
Kenneth Lowery’s daughters pushed his wheelchair into his wife’s hospital room. As Wauneta Lowery lay in a coma, he sat by her side, and took her hand in his.
A few days later, in the waning hours of March 8, Kenneth Lowery died at age 83. Seven days after that, at age 78, Wauneta Lowery died.
They both died in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where they had been admitted for brain hemorrhages — his suffered during a bad fall, hers the result of an aneurysm. She ultimately succumbed to the bleeding, after he had died of heart and kidney failure.
During the six decades leading up to that week, the Lowerys had built a life together — a partnership built on quick wit and polka dances; on light-hearted teasing and openhearted generosity; on summers with family and friends at Mascoma Lake, where if you weren’t careful, Ken might have tossed you into the water; and on larger-than-life Christmases at their home in Hartland, an event so highly anticipated that their four daughters often spent the early hours each year quivering at the top of the staircase, overcome by excitement.
They shared traditional values: life and land, God and country. A retired U.S. Army Major and past commander of the National Guard, he served 23 years in active duty, including a year in Germany during the Korean conflict, and the couple were active members at American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts. They attended Mass every week at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Windsor.
But above all else, the Lowerys loved their four daughters, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, supporting them to the point of “spoiled,” two of their daughters joked.
As one of their granddaughters put it, it was rare they missed a chance to boast about the forays and accomplishments of their familial “mini empire.”
It was a pride and a love that persevered through — and, perhaps, was even strengthened by — the unthinkable, when they lost their eldest daughter and three grandchildren in a murder-suicide in 1986.
The tragedy changed them, loved ones said, but not their care for each other. They were nearly inseparable.
And so, sitting in her Hartland home in the weeks after their parents’ passing, Yvonne Rice and her sister, Bonnie Holbrook, felt blessed that their deaths came so close together.
They remembered their parents’ final visit in the hospital room: He knew she would probably not wake up again.
“That’s why he gave up,” said Holbrook, 54. “I think it was God’s way of them not having to see each other pass.”
Rice, younger than Holbrook by five years, agreed.
“It was gut-wrenching, seeing the two of them together, but watching him sitting there in his wheelchair, winking at her … the two of them holding hands …”
Her voice trailed off before finishing.
“I truly don’t believe they could have lived without each other.”
Wauneta Iona Lowery was born Jan. 12, 1934, in East Calais, Vt., to Ralph and Gertrude (Betchelder) Persons. Her father died when Wauneta was 7, and she grew up on a working farm overseen by relatives, developing the work ethic that would later define her.
“We used to joke like she was going to outlive us all because she was such a hard worker,” said her granddaughter, Dominique Walton. “She was three times my age, and I felt like she was definitely a lot stronger.”
After receiving her schooling in East Calais, Woodbury and Montpelier, Wauneta Lowery went on to get a job at the Goodyear plant in Windsor — where, in 1952, she met the plant’s foreman, Kenneth George Lowery.
Lowery, about six years her senior, was born in East Barre, Vt., on June 25, 1928, to Raymond and Eva (Garneau). Both devout Roman Catholics, his mother had immigrated to Vermont from Quebec, and his father’s Irish family had spent generations working in the Barre granite quarries.
After his family moved to Windsor and he graduated from Windsor High School in 1946, he set his sights on the priesthood, studying with a priest before picking up his job at Goodyear.
Their mother put those ideas to rest, Holbrook and Rice joked, but she made a big change, too, converting to Catholicism and eventually joining her church’s Catholic Daughters.
Their parents rarely talked about what drew them to each other, the sisters said, but it was easy enough to tell: They shared a respect for their roots — hers were English, Scottish and Algonquin Indian, his were Irish and French. They shared values including a deep appreciation for the traditional Vermont lifestyle.
Maybe most importantly, they shared outgoing personalities. They were the kind of people, Holbrook said, who “would much rather go to a potluck than eat at a five-star restaurant.”
After Kenneth Lowery returned from Germany, the couple was married in Cornish, on Dec. 19, 1953. Their first daughter, Caroline, was born that year, followed by Bonnie in ’58, Donna in ’62 and Yvonne in ’64.
After living with the new groom’s parents for their first six years of marriage, the couple moved into their new Hartland home in November 1959: a white, two-story house with blue trim and a large front porch, perched on Route 12 next to the old Hartland Elementary School.
Wauneta Lowery’s sprawling garden soon became legendary among neighbors, friends and passers-by for its size and brilliance. Well into her old age, she could be seen walking around her yard stooped at the waist — never bending her knees, but letting her hands brush across the ground to pluck weeds from an ever-growing list of plants: tulips, roses, hostas, blueberry bushes.
She grew vegetables, too, canning enough tomato sauce, beans and relish many summers for all of her children’s families, with plenty to spare.
“She would almost obsessively work — she would just work and work and work, (tending) huge gardens all along the house,” Holbrook said, remembering how her mother would recruit the daughters for projects like wallpapering the walls or building bookshelves before their father got home from work or a trip.
Their mother could be shy around strangers, Rice and Holbrook said. But once she knew you, all bets were off: She was a woman unafraid to speak her mind.
“With mom,” Rice said, “it had to be done her way.”
In 1963, the summer after Rice was born, the Lowerys built a camp house on Mascoma Lake, a few camps down from one owned by Kenneth Lowery’s brother, Robert Lowery, known to the daughters as “Uncle Bob.” On the last day of school every year, the daughters would pile into the car and “head to camp,” they said, where “every Saturday night, there was a party.”
Music played a big role in the Lowery household, Rice and Holbrook said. Both of their parents were avid polka dancers, and their mother carried on the tradition even after having two knees replaced. Music carried into their summer parties on Mascoma Lake, where family members would play piano and accordion, and Rice would play one of her guitars — her favorite gifts from Christmases past.
The music would carry to the crowds below the camp house, they said.
“You used to see them down on the beach (across the lake), dancin’ on the beach,” Holbrook said.
Kenneth was in charge of teaching the girls to swim and fish, occasionally recruiting other relatives to help him toss in an unsuspecting victim, or sometimes getting tossed himself. Wauneta Lowery didn’t swim, but if anybody hooked a fish, she was the one to clean the scales.
“Even if we caught a little sunfish,” Holbrook said, “she’d make us feel like we caught a whale.”
At times, the parents were strict, Holbrook and Rice said. Their father had “the look” to let them know when things got serious. They were taught to say “please” and “thank you” and “God bless you,” and manners were all-important.
But at the same time, their parents passed on a sharp-tongued humor centered around pranks and punch lines. Smiling, Holbrook said they could be “very mischievous.” They taught her 4-year-old grandson, for example, how to throw a water balloon in the house.
“They were always jokin’ and pickin’ and teasin’ … Both of them were rascals,” Rice said. “You don’t bend over in front of Mom — she’d pinch you in the butt!”
They also put an emphasis on generosity. Robert Maehu Sr. met Kenneth Lowery when they were members of the Knights of Columbus. Kenneth Lowery walked right up to Robert Maehu Sr., a stranger, and offered to donate blood for his wife, Mildred, if she needed it during her battle with cancer.
From then on, said Maehu’s son, the two men were best friends, and would call each other “last thing at night” to talk to each other. When Robert Maehu Sr. died last January, Bob “Buzz” Maehu continued their last-thing-at-night talks.
After his own dad’s passing, Buzz Maehu looked at Kenneth Lowery as his “second father.” Rice and Holbrook said their father considered Buzz Maehu to be the son he never had.
“I still find myself picking up the phone and halfway dialing, and remembering he’s not there,” Buzz Maehu said. “(Kenneth and Wauneta) cared about their kids and cared about other people, sometimes more than they cared about themselves.”
Through their involvement in local groups — the Lowerys were both involved in the Windsor American Legion Post 25, and Kenneth Lowery was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2571 and Disabled American Veterans — they took widows and widowers under their wings, bringing them meals and making nightly phone calls after their spouses had died.
Surrounded by a family of women, Kenneth Lowery thrived in his role as a patriarch, his family said. He was “intelligent and savvy,” Rice said.
Lisa Maehu, Buzz’s wife, described Kenneth Lowery as a “very well-read man” who loved to talk politics and financing.
“He was a very well-spoken man, very articulate in how he spoke,” she said. “He would engage people in conversation and try to draw them out to see what else he had to say.”
He loved to give advice, too, Walton said. He would share knowledge on everything from buying your first home to filling out your yearly taxes.
“He was sort of the godfather of the family,” Walton said. “Everybody went to him for advice. He took care of us, he was extremely intelligent, he was book-smart and street-smart. … He built this family and built this little mini empire.”
His burden was never heavier, his role never more important, than when Kenneth Lowery, his wife and their family endured the horrific events of March 4, 1986.
Their daughter, Caroline Hull, who was 32 at the time, and her three children — Kenneth, 11, Jeremiah, 7, and Theresa, 4 — died in the tragedy. So did Hull’s boyfriend, Michael F. Dean, a Vietnam War veteran suffering from mental illness.
A letter said to be written by Hull reached the Valley News and other media outlets the next day. In it, Hull wrote that she and Dean had given the children sleeping pills before Dean shot the family to death, set their West Lebanon house on fire and shot himself, in protest of government mistreatment of veterans.
“It was hell to see my parents go through that,” said Holbrook, four years younger than Hull.
Her older sister had no history of mental illness, Holbrook said, but only years earlier, Hull had suffered tremendously.
Hull’s husband of 12 years, John Hull Jr., was also a psychologically disabled veteran of Vietnam. He was spit on and called a “baby killer” when he returned home from the war on a stretcher, handicapped by severe shrapnel wounds, Holbrook said.
He died in February 1983. Authorities suspected the cause of death was an accidentally fatal mixture of prescription drugs, according to Valley News reports at the time.
John Hull and Michael Dean had met each other in a veterans’ hospital, Holbrook said. Holbrook said she believed Dean wrote the letters and then had Caroline Hull rewrite them, in part because her spelling was usually not as good as it was in the letters.
Holbrook also could barely recognize her sister’s voice in a tape that her family received from Hull and Dean after their deaths.
“Just from the tone of the letters, the tone of the tape that was left behind, it was someone that was sedated,” Holbrook said, adding she believed her sister had been convinced she was somehow taking the children to be in heaven with their father.
It was virtually impossible to make sense of what happened, Rice and Holbrook said last month. Their family was at once devastated by a horrific loss and felt violated in the way they were treated by the media. Television cameras showed up at the funeral for Caroline Hull and her children; newspaper reporters tried to ask the family things like, “How do you feel?” — a question that seemed at once absurd and outrageous as they mourned four of their loved ones.
Wauneta Lowery had an especially difficult time, Rice and Holbrook said. Walton, Holbrook’s daughter, was 4 at the time, and she and her mother were living with her grandparents. She recalled the toll it took on her grandmother.
“I remember Grandma having migraines, I remember her being in bed a lot, but I also remember her just taking care of me,” Walton said.
Her grandfather, Walton said, tried to shelter his wife from the public fall-out. He had always lived by the mantra that you can choose to be a victim or a survivor. As difficult as it was then, he chose to be a survivor for both of them.
“In that aspect, Mom was not as strong as Dad. Dad was the rock,” Holbrook said.
“He had to be,” Rice said. “He held us together.”
But Wauneta Lowery found her own ways to make it through the days — especially by putting her energies into being the caregiver for Walton while Holbrook was at work.
“She had a job, to take care of me,” Walton said. “It kept her busy.”
Their parents coped as best they could, the daughters said, making it through from one day to the next with the support of family and friends, and with their religious faith. They rarely talked about the tragedy, Walton said, but refused to forget Caroline or their grand-children: Every year, Kenneth Lowery would ask for a Mass to be said in their honor, Rice and Holbrook said.
And in the 26 years since that terrible day, they never forgot to commemorate one of their four birthdays, or remember them at Christmas. They drew on memories of the good times: Making cookies with Caroline when they were kids; the grandchildren’s memories from their favorite camp, Camp Sno-Mo.
Bryon Seace became fast friends with the Lowerys about two years ago, when he started providing massage therapy for Wauneta to ease her migraines. On the first day he met them, he said, they opened up about the losing their daughter and grandchildren, sometimes in tears as they spoke.
The Lowerys were still proud of their daughter and her children, Seace said. If the couple hadn’t fully recovered, they at least had learned how to move on.
“I think it made them stop and think about how precious life is, and treasure each moment, because you never know,” he said. “They still trusted people, I don’t think it deterred them from getting to know people and being interactive with people. It didn’t shut them off from anybody, because they were real open and honest with me.”
Even before their deaths, they had made arrangements for memorial contributions to be made to that camp that Kenneth and Jeremiah loved so much.
“I don’t think it’s something they ever let go of or got over,” Walton said, “but I think they appreciate their family more, maybe. I think it’s also led them to … not take things for granted, and knowing anything could happen.”
The couple would spend the rest of their lives at the white house on Route 12.
The Lowerys were proud to be lifelong Vermonters, Rice and Holbrook said. They taught their children to “respect the land, to love the land, and to never ever abuse it,” Holbrook said.
And they resisted opportunities to move, turning down Goodyear’s offers for Kenneth Lowery to oversee plants in both Kentucky and his ancestral Ireland.
“Hartland was home,” Rice said.
The couple did take a respite in 1999, packing into a 36-foot motor home with Wauneta’s sister, Pauline, and brother-in-law to travel the country, driving to Yellowstone Park and visiting nearly everywhere from Virginia to Las Vegas along the way.
For them, it was the trip of a lifetime, creating stories they would share with their children and grandchildren for years to come — like the time they were in Los Angeles when an earthquake struck.
Later in life, Kenneth Lowery struggled as health problems worsened. For the last year and a half, Rice took him to Dartmouth-Hitchcock three times a week for dialysis. Wauneta Lowery maintained her garden even as arthritis in her hands worsened, and she held true to her Monday morning visits with Seace.
But they maintained their closeness — after her appointments, Wauneta would pick up Ken from the hospital, and the two would spend the rest of the day running errands — and never lost their trademark, spitfire personalities, holding on to the ability to make people laugh until their final days.
“They’re older people and they speak their mind, and they don’t hold nothin’ back, so it’s kind of refreshing,” Seace said. He remembered Wauneta Lowery, his first-ever customer after getting his massage license, telling him he needed to charge her more money because giving her a special discount “ain’t no way to make a living,” or Kenneth Lowery telling him that if Wauneta’s dress is in the way of the massage, “just throw it up over her head! It don’t matter, she don’t mind!”
Each of them took their last breaths surrounded by their family, listening to their favorite gospel song, “In the Garden,” the same song that was played during their daughter’s and grandchildren’s funeral 26 years earlier.
Friends and family attended a joint funeral Mass for the Lowerys at St. Francis of Assisi, on March 20. The church was packed with people, Rice and Holbrook said. Some friends and family drove more than 600 miles to attend.
Burials will be held at a later date.
The Lowerys’ grandson, Justin Rice, wrote a memorial read by a relative during the mass.
“Someday, I will tell my kids how great you both were and brag about how we are related to you,” he wrote. “I will never forget your kindness and your wisdom. You both will forever live on through us.”
The family had held off on planning funeral services when Kenneth Lowery died on March 8, Yvonne Rice said, because they sensed their mother would follow him soon after. She likes to picture them in heaven now, continuing their favorite polka dances, “dancin’ in the sky” together.
“I just knew,” she said. “Something just told me that they were going to be together forever.”