Sunday, June 9, 2013

"S" is for significant. Her contributions certainly were. And she'd tell you yours could be, too.

I remember the instant I realized my friend Karen was a better person than I would ever be.

We were chatting on the phone about something -- I remember exactly what, and I'll get to that in a second -- and I asked her, offhandedly, what she was up to that day.  She responded, just as offhandedly, that she was shopping at Hy-Vee for a family she had met that morning.

She had visited them via an organization with which she was involved, one that welcomed refugee families to the community.  The family had young children, and Karen was concerned the kids didn't have enough to eat.  So, rather than leave the apartment with a breezy, "Let me know if you need anything," Karen knew they needed something, a lot of somethings, so she rolled up her sleeves and got started.

I started to tell her how incredible her act of generosity was, and she responded, "What kind of person would I be if I didn't get the kids some Cocoa Puffs?  Every kid in America should have Cocoa Puffs." I have a feeling she bought enough Cocoa Puffs that day that those kids still might be finding boxes of it in their pantry.

Karen and I met when she started attending Johnston School Board meetings. I was covering them for the Register, and she and I hit it off.  I loved her passion for the issues she believed in, and I loved her irreverent sense of humor. When she ran for school board and won, she was the director I knew could be counted on to give me a quote at midnight; she was up anyway.

Karen and I were usually on the same page, ideologically and politically, but in the time we were friends, we did disagree twice, and both times pained me. Once was about someone who was running for school board; I wasn't covering Johnston at the time, so I was involved with the election as a regular person, and I didn't like or trust one of the candidates. Karen, who saw the good in nearly everyone, told me I was being unfair, that I should give the person a chance. Karen gave everyone a chance.

The second issue was the one about which we were on the phone the day Karen had been shopping for the family at Hy-Vee. I was president of an organization at the high school that Karen felt was being exclusionary; although participation was open to all, she felt a fee for travel and costumes prohibited some students from becoming involved. I didn't quite see things her way at first, but of course she was right, and her pushing me to do the right thing resulted in the establishment of scholarships that remain in existence, as far as I know, today.

She was unfailingly tenacious; when she cared about someone or something, she simply didn't give up. When Karen was in her mid-40s, she turned that tenacity on herself. She'd gained a few pounds and was concerned about her health; she wanted to be around forever, she said, not only to raise her children, but to drive her grandchildren nuts. So she started running.

She was not a natural runner, so she started slowly, running from driveway to driveway in her cul-de-sac.  Months later -- I kid you not -- she was running marathons. I'd honk from my car as I'd see her lean, muscular form running all around Johnston. And she'd waive off the compliments I gave her about her newfound athleticism, too. "It's about time I got my fat ass off the couch," she'd say, although she was never fat. And I can't imagine she ever, ever sat on the couch.

I knew I'd never be like Karen, but I often thought, maybe she'll pass along some of that thing, that thing that made her who she was, via simple proximity. It didn't happen, but that didn't stop me from trying.

Five years ago, Karen died. She was 48. She hadn't been ill; she hadn't been hurt. On Easter Sunday, during a routine errand, she simply died.  And I know people say things like this all the time, in her case, it's true: When she died, part of a community died with her.

As is so often the case with exemplary people, part of her lives on, though -- in her sons, of course, one of whom looks exactly like his mother and possesses her uncanny perception and talent for empathy. But she also lives on in the community -- a community that, since her death, seems to have become more open to the fact that everyone who lives here isn't white and wealthy, that within the boundaries of Johnston exists a great deal of need.

That's why we're walking and running for Karen Coaldrake on Friday. Organizers of the annual 5K for Karen take each event's proceeds and divide them among the organizations Karen cared about so that even in death, she's still that tenacious spirit.

Join us, won't you? Believe me, if Karen were still here and the event were for someone else, she'd be bugging you to sign up. And she wouldn't stop until you did.

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