Katherine (Kay) Louise Howe Roberts
1919 - 2009
Kay Howe was a talented young artist who was hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the fall of 1944 to illustrate the Fisheries Resources of the United States. Her immediate supervisor was Rachel Carson, then assistant editor of all U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publications, who was planning a series of pamphlets to publicize the national wildlife refuge system.
Howe was born on July 4, 1919 and grew up in Utica, N.Y. She was educated at the Walnut Hill School, Syracuse University and the University of Iowa, where she studied with Grant Wood and received an MA and an MFA. At Iowa, she was a colleague and friend of Shirley Briggs. After teaching art at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Kay found work in 1943 at the Glenn L. Martin Corporation in Maryland. She illustrated manuals for military engineering and B-26 maintenance handbooks. Howe invited Briggs to join her at the Martin Corporation. In 1944 Howe was hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service after making a cold call and she in turn brought Briggs into the Service as an illustrator in 1945. Howe enjoyed the outdoors and had a deep interest in ornithology and conservation. Although she and Briggs were over a decade younger than Carson, the three became friends as well as colleagues.
Kay Howe was the series designer for a projected twelve-booklet series Conservation in Action. She also illustrated three of the five booklets that Rachel Carson wrote. In September 1946 Howe accompanied Carson to the Parker River Refuge in coastal Massachusetts, where she took photographs as well as sketched wildlife. In February 1947 Carson and Howe visited Mattamuskeet, a remote refuge on the easternmost coast of North Carolina that protected the endangered whistling swan. Kay also accompanied Carson in September on a month-long train trip out west to gather material for a FWS migratory bird survey, Guarding our Wildlife Resources. They visited and collected data at Bear River Refuge in Utah, fish hatcheries on the Columbia River, and at Red Rock Lakes Refuge in Montana. The booklets which Carson authored and Howe illustrated for Conservation in Action were published between 1947 and 1950. They are considered among the best natural histories of the refuges that the Service ever produced, unique for the way Carson introduced the role of ecology in the cycles and rhythms between natural habitat and the requirements of wildlife.
Carson and Howe remained colleagues and friends until Kay left government service in 1949. She married Maj. Sam A. Roberts in 1950. Although she lived in Atlanta, she returned to Washington periodically to do free lance work. Carson, then on leave from her editorial responsibilities, was struggling to complete what would be her prize-winning book, The Sea Around Us. She asked Kay Roberts to do a few select drawings for the book, including an illustrated chart of geologic time, an ancient sea serpent for the frontispiece, and one or two others that were never used because Carson could not afford to buy them. Kay also helped Rachel with the general design and layout of the book. The Sea Around Us was published by Oxford University Press in 1951 and became an international best-seller, garnering the National Book Award in Nonfiction for Carson in 1952.
Roberts and Carson remained friends for the rest of their lives. Although they saw each other only irregularly, their correspondence continued over the years.
Katherine Louise Howe Roberts died at the age of 90 in Salt Lake City, Utah. on September 4, 2009. Her ashes are interned in West Eaton, New York cemetery. She travelled the world with her military husband and four children, all the while maintaining her interest in art, birds, wildlife and the environment.
Roberts contributed immeasurably to Linda Lear’s research for her 1997 biography of Carson. She donated her diary recounting her western trip with Carson in 1947 and other letters, pamphlets and photographs documenting her work at USFWS and her friendship with Carson to the Lear/Carson Collection at the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives at Connecticut College.
(Contributed by Marguerite H. Roberts, July 2010)