As the investigation into her death continues, candlelight vigils are planned across Alaska tonight (Friday) in memory of Mackenzie Howard. The 13-year-old Kake girl is believed to be a victim of murder in the small, Southeast village on Kupreanof Island.
The vigils begin at 6 p.m. in most places. In Kake, mourners will gather at the Old Grade School. In Juneau, they’ll gather at Sealaska Plaza. The Sitka event is planned at the Salvation Army, on Sawmill Creek Road near the roundabout.
Family members, meanwhile, remember Mackenzie as an energetic young girl, with a bright smile and a love for basketball.
Her mother, Marla Howard, plays the game, and her father, Kip Howard, is a veteran of Southeast Alaska’s annual Gold Medal tournament. He says his daughter wanted to follow in those footsteps.
“She says, ‘Mom, you’re a baller, and my Dad’s a baller. So that must mean I’m going to be a super baller,” Kip Howard said. “That was a joy to hear from her.”
At 13 years old, Mackenzie was looking forward to the day she’d be able to play on the JV or varsity squads for Kake High School. And her dad says she took an interest in college basketball, too. Mackenzie’s inspiration was Brittney Griner, a 6-foot-8 senior who plays for Baylor.
“She enjoyed when she got to watch her play,” he said. “And then she would run downstairs and make a pose, and say ‘Brittney Griner!’ She was dreaming of going to Baylor University to be the next Brittney Griner.”
For her dad, the fun was in watching her play. On a road trip to Klawock, Mackenzie played on a team of all boys, against another team of all boys. He told her that it would make her better, and he says she bought into it. Not that it was always easy to watch her take that advice.
“I was sitting on the bench, and she was playing defense, I think, and the kid ran her over, and then stepped on her and trampled on her,” he recalled. “My first reaction was, I jumped off the bench, and I took two steps toward the court, and then I stopped. I looked back at my wife, and I told her, ‘These bleachers need seatbelts.'”
But everything turned out all right.
“My baby got right up off the floor and continued playing as hard as she was,” Howard said.
Those good memories – of a young girl who liked her big pink glasses as much as dribbling a basketball – are what Kip Howard says he and his family will hold onto. But they also have a lot of questions.
The night she didn’t come home, Kip Howard says he got a handheld floodlight and went searching.
“That was the most terrible feeling I’ve had,” he said. “And then I got the call.”
The Howard family is well-known in Kake, a city of about 600 people about 40 miles northwest of Petersburg. Kip Howard is the fire chief and captain of the city’s search-and-rescue boat. He says because Kake is a close-knit community, the tragedy of Mackenzie’s death reverberates throughout the city.
“My mom is still alive down south, and I have several sisters,” he said. “But since I’ve been here in Kake, the folks here have been my mother, my grandmothers, my sisters, my brothers, my uncles, my nephews. This is my family.”
Mackenzie had several siblings – three brothers and five sisters. Many family members traveled back to Kake upon hearing the news. Condolences have also poured in from throughout the community, the Alaskan panhandle, and friends across the country.
“Too many to respond to,” Howard said. “All I could think of was ‘Thank you. Thank you.'”