Friends, relatives remember family of four
Vacationing Palo Alto couple, daughters, die in Canadian highway crash
All four members of a Palo Alto family, who died last Friday (July 22) in a car accident in Canada, will be remembered at services Friday (July 29) in Turlock and Sunday in Palo Alto.
Robert Howard, 49, his wife Ana-Maria Dias, 50, and their daughters Samantha, 11, and Veronica, 9, were on vacation in British Columbia's Kootenay National Park when a tractor-trailer crossed the dividing line and collided with their Dodge camper, pinning it against a barrier and causing it to ignite.
Sunday's Palo Alto service, to be held outdoors at El Carmelo Elementary School — where Dias had been a PTA president and volunteer — is being organized by Howard's close-knit family and a host of neighbors and PTA friends.
A Roman Catholic service, to be held Friday in Turlock, was organized by Dias' family, 1975 refugees from the Angolan civil war who settled in the Napa Valley before retiring to the Central Valley.
Surviving family members got news of the accident in the early hours of Saturday, according to Cindy Howard of Palo Alto, the wife of Robert Howard's brother John.
Robert Howard's three siblings and father, Stanford engineering professor Ronald Howard — all of whom live in the immediate area — gathered and stayed together until dawn.
By 5 a.m. Saturday, Cindy Howard began mounting a memorial website (www.robertandanamaria.com), which quickly grew into a venue for expressions of shock, grief and the sharing of memories, photos and information from friends and family around the world.
Friends, neighbors and PTA colleagues sprang into action to prepare meals and help plan memorials, Cindy Howard said.
"We're supported by a lot of people," she said.
"Ana Maria's family is also uniquely close, and they're gathering and doing that same kind of thing in the Central Valley."
Robert Howard lived in Palo Alto from the age of 3, attending Peninsula School in Menlo Park, Jordan Middle School, Palo Alto High School and Stanford University, where he earned a bachelor's and master's in mechanical engineering.
After a decade at Apple, he moved in 1996 to the product design and development consulting firm Lunar Design, where he was vice-president of engineering.
Dias was born in the North Atlantic archipelago of the Azores, moving between there and the Portuguese colony of Angola in Africa until the civil war there caused her family to flee to the United States when she was a teenager.
"My father and my sister (Ana-Maria) were at home (in Angola) and the fighting came close to the house," said Dias' sister, Mary Horvitz of Seattle. "They had about an hour to gather whatever they could.
"It's a very long story, but we all made it safely out and ended up in the Napa Valley," where the family had a friend, she said.
Dias earned a degree in electronic engineering from California State University, San Luis Obispo, and worked at the American Rocket Company before moving to Philips Semiconductor. She loved books and art and for a while worked part-time at Printer's Inc. bookstore.
After the birth of her first child in 1999, Dias devoted herself to parenting and volunteering, becoming involved first at Palo Alto PreSchool Family and later at El Carmelo and JLS Middle School, which her daughters attended.
She was in the early stages of launching her own business as a professional organizer, her sister-in-law Kim Saxe said.
Samantha "Sam" Howard was about to enter seventh grade at JLS, and Veronica "Nica," fourth grade at El Carmelo.
Friends painted a portrait of a sociable and close-knit family who took walks together in the neighborhood, volunteered and reached out to others.
Neighbor Carrie Manley, who recently went on vacation and left the family dog, Charlie, with a house-sitter, said Dias had volunteered to take Charlie home for the rest of the week after he seemed lonely.
"Knowing Ana-Maria, Robert, Samantha and Nica, I knew that Charlie would be extremely well-cared for and loved, so without hesitation I immediately said, 'Yes,'" Manley wrote on the website.
"And so began Charlie's best week ever," Manley wrote, adding that she got email from Dias "with tender, sweet Charlie updates."
Preparing to leave for the camping trip to Canada, Dias left Charlie at Manley's house a few hours before Manley and her family returned from vacation July 16.
"How many people write a thank-you note after they take care of your pet? This family did," Manley said.
At Sunday's outdoor service at El Carmelo, shade will be limited, and Cindy Howard is urging people to wear comfortable clothing, including hats and sunshades.
After the formal service, there will be an opportunity for sharing and recording stories on video.
"That will mean so much to the family," she said.
Dias is survived by her parents, Jose and Natalia Dias, a brother, John, sisters, Mary and Natalia, their spouses and children.
Howard is survived by his father, Ron; his sister, Kim Saxe, and her husband, Tim, of Los Altos; and his brother David of Menlo Park and his brother John and his wife, Cindy, of Palo Alto, and their children. His mother, Polly Howard, died in 1997.
Sunday's service will be at 3 p.m. at El Carmelo School, 3024 Bryant St., Palo Alto. Walking, bicycling or carpooling is encouraged.
Rather than flowers, the family prefers memorial contributions to Palo Alto Partners in Education (www.papie.org); Friends of PreSchool Family (www.fopsf.org); or the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (www.svdpusa.org), an organization that helped the Dias family when they arrived as refugees to the United States.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.