Howard/Dias Memorial Fund

With your help, El Carmelo Elementary School will soon have a beautiful gathering spot for friends, old and new, to enjoy—a welcoming place for all, in honor of one El Carmelo family, gone now but never forgotten.

Thanks to a grassroots, community-led effort, in partnership with Principal Chuck Merritt, plans are underway to plant a tree on the grass near the handball courts near Room 20. A sturdy, well-designed wooden bench will encircle the tree. More than just a landscaping project, this is a tangible, lasting way to celebrate the lives of former El Carmelo PTA President Ana Maria Dias, her husband Robert Howard, and their two treasured daughters, 11 year-old Samantha, and 9 year-old Veronica – a family that for years embodied the love, creativity and kindness that are at the heart of our school.

Last July, while traveling in their family camper on vacation in Canada, Ana-Maria, Robert, Nica and Sam, died in a terrible crash when a truck driver somehow lost control and swerved into their lane. Immediately following the accident, people throughout our community generously and selflessly did everything they could to help the family’s relatives, as well as our many grieving children, and each other—just as Ana Maria, Robert and their girls would have done for any one of us.

“The maple tree and the bench surrounding it will have a central location on the El Carmelo campus representing the way that this dear family had a ‘central’ impact on our school,” said Principal Chuck Merritt. “Their love and service intersected the lives of many groups of parents, staff and students, bringing us all together. The memorial bench will be a lovely place to rest and shelter beneath a beautiful shade tree, reminding us of the caring for people that Ana Maria, Robert, Sam and Nica helped to make part of the abiding culture of this school.”

In fact, that is why this “living” memorial is so fitting: the family loved nature, and for all of them, a stranger was just a friend they had yet to meet. Ana Maria always made a point of asking and remembering people’s names. She and Robert took the time to walk new families to school. From creating a community-wide art festival to organizing lunch-time arts and crafts activities, and so much more, Ana Maria brought joy, passion, intellect, leadership and conviction to our school every day, as she dedicated herself not just to her own two children, but also to all children.  Daughters Sam and Nica brought that same life-affirming spark for empathy, fun and friendship. Whenever Ana Maria and Robert saw a need, they answered it—without ever putting the spotlight on themselves. In fact, my hunch is that they would perhaps want us to think of this memorial as a place to celebrate not just their family, but truly all families, along with all the beloved members of our El Carmelo extended family who are no longer with us. Ana Maria and Robert believed in including everyone, and that’s why the circle design for the memorial bench feels just right.

The project price-tag is an estimated $5000. Donations of any amount may be dropped off at the El Carmelo office, (3024 Bryant Street, Palo Alto, 94306), with checks made out to El Carmelo PTA-Howard/Dias Memorial. Organizers say if they are fortunate enough to raise the necessary funds, any additional donated money will be given to Partners in Education, and to PreSchool Family, the nurturing infant, toddler and pre-school cooperative program where Sam and Nica thrived throughout their earliest years before coming to El Carmelo.

For the relatives of the Howard-Dias family, and for the hundreds of parents, children and community members who personally knew Ana Maria, Robert, Nica and Sam, the tragedy brings forth many challenging questions: how do we find meaning in this incalculable, shocking loss? Going forward, what lessons do we teach our children? How do we make sense of something so senseless and so sad? In the words of one close family friend, Suman Gupta, “My family loved this family very dearly and the only consolation in having lost them is that we first had the good fortune to know them.”

For Suman and her children, and for so many others, the memorial will be a place to celebrate the gift of four good people, and the lessons they taught in life and in death. “Each one had a special way of caring for and creating bonds with their friends and their community,” said another close friend, Andrea Christensen. “I always felt valued and appreciated in little ways that made me smile and laugh and also in more significant ways that made me realize the depth of their generosity and compassion. The honest conversations and heartfelt sharing brought our families together.”

The hope is that this tree and bench will help bring more families together, and not just the families that knew Ana-Maria, Robert, Nica and Sam, but all families throughout our community, now and for many years to come. For that to happen, all you have to do what this family did throughout their lives: keep your eyes and heart open, and if you ever see someone—large or small—who could use a friend, be that friend. And what better place for friendships to flourish than at our very own “giving tree”, inspired by a family that brought love to life every day.

For more information, contact Michele Kasper,, (650) 858-1807. To read complete tributes from family and friends, or write one of your own, please visit


Remembering the Howard-Dias Family

My name is Cindy and I am Robert and Ana-Maria’s sister-in-law.  The other speakers have shared some about each member of the family individually. I want to talk about the Howard-Dias family.

John and RobertI can’t remember when I met Robert. It was sometime when we were all in school together, John, Robert, David, and I. There were several years in there when there was at least one Howard and sometimes two at every Stanford graduation. What I do remember about meeting Robert is that you never met just Robert. You always met Robert AND Robert’s friends. And, surrounded by these friends, Robert loved to entertain, but often in a bachelor-esque kind of way. There were several Easter egg hunts, at which the menu consisted of: oreos, M&Ms, peanut M&Ms, chocolate eggs, and ham.

I do remember meeting Ana-Maria. John and I were going to an event at the Exploratorium and in one of those chance encounters that made living near Robert so delightful, we saw him in the crowd by the front door. Robert started to lift his hand to greet us but couldn’t because he was holding so tightly to Ana-Maria’s hand. And that’s the way they were, from the very beginning of their relationship: tightly linked, intensely supportive of one another, complementary to each other. Robert provided a stable base for Ana-Maria’s creativity to flourish and grow. Ana-Maria taught Robert important things – like to serve vegetables at Easter brunch.

Sam, Nica, and GwenAna Maria broadened Robert’s horizons in other ways, too. As a member of a close-knit family and as someone who knew about being part of a broader community, she taught him how to engage more fully in both of those places himself.

For me, personally, I loved that Ana-Maria was someone else who knew what it meant to have married into the Howard family. In Spanish, there is a specific word for the relationship we had: “concuñada,” which literally means  “with sister-in-law.” She had a gift that helped me further integrate into the family where she was the newcomer. I know that Robert enjoyed a similar relationship with his brother-in-law Eric. Once they sat down before plates piled high with some Portuguese delicacy and gave each other a knowing look. Robert said, “You are right: it does look like Klingon food.”

AnaMaria and SamAs parents, Robert and Ana-Maria were capable and confident. After Sam was born I ran into someone who had seen Ana-Maria with her new baby at Blossom Birth and we agreed that the two of them were communicating so well, so early on. Ana-Maria poured herself out to be in love in this baby and this baby was so in tune with her mother.

Not to say that parenting was always easy, but somehow Ana-Maria made it look that way. When Sam was a bit older I completed a written observation of her at home with her mother. She was very active, running, jumping and spinning, nearly constantly. At the end I wrote, “After completing the observation, I sat on the couch for about fifteen minutes before I could even contemplate standing up.  I was exhausted after just 30 minutes.  I asked Ana-Maria if Sam’s activity level was typical and she told me that this had been an easy day…I am amazed at Ana-Maria’s ability to respond to Sam calmly and positively in many challenging situations.”

Robert and Nica at PSF

During those first early weeks of motherhood, Ana-Maria called me or I called her every couple of days. Finally she said, “I don’t know why it took me so long to do this, but you teach this all the time, so I am going to be part of your class.” That choice was pivotal in their family’s life.  Two of the girls who spoke earlier were members of that original newborn class at PreSchool Family and the other three met Ana-Maria and Sam in the 3’s and 4’s classes there. I have seen other classes develop this kind of tight bond over the years, but there is always one family at the core, positive and engaging, who draws the community together. Ana-Maria and Robert and their girls were that for this class.

Robert and NicaNica was born two years after Sam. She, too, was very connected to her mother. In an observation I wrote:  “Veronica is a well-attached infant. …When she began to get tired she was comforted just by the sound of her mother’s voice.  As she began to get more tired, she was back in equilibrium as soon as her mother picked her up.  Her mother responded quickly to Veronica’s cries.

Robert and Ana-Maria become better people because of each other, and when they had children they took advantage of that to become more invested in their families and their communities.

Ana-Maria never missed an event with my children. One year my nephew Andrew was graduating from high school, Amanda from middle school, Laurel from fifth grade, and Gwen from kindergarten. After the Laurel’s graduation I sat right over there and introduced Ana-Maria to El Carmelo’s principal. I said, “Lupe this is Ana-Maria. She is going to be here next year and she will be an amazing help.” And she was. Robert and Ana-Maria gave all that they had to make their community a better place.Cousins at Graduation

Sometime this past February — it was one of those days where I had a huge to-do list so I wasn’t paying attention — Ana-Maria called me. She said she and Robert had been talking about the people who had had a positive influence on them and that my name came up. She said, “We just wanted to say how grateful we are to you.” I was so busy and so stunned that I just said Thank you. What I wanted to say, what I should have said, is you’ve given me so much more than I have ever given to you.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have been part of their lives. I am grateful for what we were able to learn from them. I am grateful that with all that she did, she took the time to say thank you.

GraduationJanet spoke earlier about how we can’t make sense of this. The tragedy is simply unspeakable. But we can learn from these wonderful people and follow their example. Being a teacher I get to give assignments, so I am putting on my teacher hat and giving each of you an assignment.

First assignment. There is someone in your life who you need to thank. Today, find that person and share your gratitude.

Second assignment. There is someone in your life who is new to the community, or is alone, or is in need of help. This week: reach out to that person.

Third assignment. There is a need in your community that you are uniquely suited to address. This month: do what you can to fill that need.

Robert, Ana-Maria, Sam, and Nica. We love you and we will miss you.


Remembering Sam by Amanda

by Amanda

Judging by how long I, and many other people have known Sam, you could say that even if I had all the time in the world, I still would not have enough time to describe all the great memories we have had together. And, knowing Sam for as long as I have, I can say that she is the sweetest girl on earth. Sam has always had the excitement and thrill of being a kid, but it is obvious that she was mature and responsible. I, and many people, I hope, believe they never really left us, they are always in our hearts. I will miss you, Sam. Eu já estou com saudades, Sam.

About Sam from Jolie

By Jolie

Hi. My name is Jolie and I met Sam at Preschool Family at age 3. Instantly I found her to be one of the most generous, caring and friendly people that I have ever know.  Our relationship blossomed over the years and Sam became one of my closest friends. Since we didn’t attend the same elementary and middle schools, we couldn’t see each other as often as we liked, but we loved texting each other and had so much fun taking theater camp together during the summers.

Sam was able to make conversation and connect with everyone. Whether you had seen Sam yesterday or two months ago, she was overjoyed to see you and together you could pick up where you last left off. She also had a great sense of humor and an infectious smile. Everyone loved her – kids and adults alike. Sam put others before herself and never hesitated to help those in need.

Sam, like the rest of her family, was very generous. She was always volunteering herself and her things to others. Once my family and I were at Sam’s house. My little sister was playing with a doll and when it came time to leave, my little sister didn’t want to part with it. Sam let her keep the doll, even though it was one of her favorites.

While I shared many fun times with Sam, one of the best memories I have was of our beloved summer tradition of AMT. AMT (standing for Ana-Maria Theatre) was a week of fun at the Howards’s house, during which we wrote a play and Ana-Maria directed it. The shows always turned out so great and I cherished being able to spend so much time together. This is a tradition that I will miss dearly.

Not only was Sam a lot of fun, she had a love of sports and theatre. She worked hard to do her best, always with a smile on her face. In honor of Sam and her passion for softball, I and the rest of my teammates on the Palo Alto Heat will be wearing a patch with Sam’s name and jersey number over our hearts to the State Championships this week.

Sam was a unique and special person and I am truly lucky to have been her friend. I miss you Sam and will think of you often. May you rest in peace. Thank you.