JUNEAU — Thirteen-year-old Mackenzie H. Howard loved to read and was a straight A student. She loved to play basketball, and always had a smile on her face.
“She was always laughing,” Howard’s older half-sister Miranda James-McGraw, 22, said. “She had a huge, goofy personality. She could brighten anyone’s day. She would always brighten my day.”
The seventh-grader was found dead in a Kake church on Tuesday night, the victim of homicide.
No details have been released surrounding the circumstances of her death, no suspects have been identified and no arrests have been made thus far, according to the Alaska Bureau of Investigations, which continues to investigate.
But in this dark time, Howard’s family is trying to focus on the light, which is what Howard would have wanted, they say.
“If you ever met her, she’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever known,” said Jennifer Weisbecker, the girlfriend of Howard’s brother, Nick Dixson. “She had the biggest smile, she was always making people happy, she just, she just didn’t have a mean bone in her body.”
Weisbecker organized the Kake vigil on Facebook while waiting at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. She and Dixson live in New Jersey, and they flew to Kake immediately after hearing the news. Other vigils were organized around the state on Friday.
“There’s no one else like her in the world,” 20-year-old Dixson said, adding that for Christmas he got his sister book lights and gift cards for her Kindle. Howard had already worn out her first Kindle and was on her second one, he said.
The outpouring of support from the village which has a population of about 600 people has been amazing, Dixson said.
“It’s just unimaginable of how this town is loving our family, and our kitchen — there’s not place to bring any food. People are still bringing stuff by,” he said.
Howard is the daughter of Clifton “Kip” Howard and Marla Howard, both active community members and volunteers. Dixson said Kip is the fire chief, the captain of a search and rescue boat and he runs the water plant, and Marla is a former store employee and school secretary. Not too long ago, Dixson said his mother planned the 100-year anniversary celebration for the Kake Memorial Presbyterian Church, where Howard was found in the arctic entryway shortly before midnight on Tuesday.
“It’s about 20 feet from my house,” he said. “Right across the road.”
Howard was the youngest of eight, James-McGraw said.
“We’re one big family,” James-McGraw said. “She was our baby sister. She was the glue that held us all together.”
James-McGraw lives in Juneau and works as an administration assistant at Sealaska, which hosted a vigil on Friday evening. That vigil was organized on Facebook by Sealaska Vice President and Corporate Secretary Nicole Hallingstad, who said Sealaska was more than willing to host a place for Juneauites to gather in Howard’s memory.
“Our communities and our culture values the support of one another in a time of loss, and so there’s a natural tendency to want to group and gather and want to be with one another,” Hallingstad said in a phone interview.
Other vigils were scheduled in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Sitka, according to the Facebook group “Candlelight Vigil for Mackenzie.” Supporters on Facebook vowed to light candles for Howard from all over the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast.
In Kake, the vigil was to be held at the Old Grade School, one of Howard’s favorite spots to play basketball, then moving to a church for a candlelight service.
Weisbecker said that things are calming down in Kake after the initial “rage that first kind of overcame everybody.” The presence of law enforcement officers, who flew down from Anchorage on Wednesday afternoon, helped with that, she said.
“The cops are doing a good job interviewing everybody, and we feel like there’s a (police) presence there,” she said. “The shock is starting to subside.”
Dixson said he plans on going to the vigil, and that he hopes it will help draw everyone closer in the face of tragedy.
“Just to gather with our loved ones and reconnect, and just draw all our love together, and all the love in this town,” he said.
By EMILY RUSSO MILLER