In Memory

Karen L Conant

Karen L Conant

Letters from Karen

by Allen Johnson

I lost not only a classmate but a dear friend, when Karen died on June 4, 2011.

It took me a long time to find Karen.  When I did finally locate her, she was living in Friday Harbor, WA.  When we finally connected, we had a number of animated conversations.  Karen was extremely intelligent and literary.  She spoke fondly of her favorite novelist, Pat Conroy, listing Beach Music as one of her favorite books.  In fact, she sent a hardcover copy of that book to me on her birthday.  The inscription read:  "To my new and very dear friend, Allen.  Happy Karen's Birthday.  Fondly, Karen."  So, even on her birthday, it was she who was giving gifts.

She spoke freely with me about her family, her professional life, and her battle with cancer.  I very much enjoyed our conversations, and, according to her, so did she.

Karen knew how to write.  For that reason, I thought that it would be best to share two of the email letters that she sent to me--unedited.  I think you will appreciate her intelligence, honesty, and sense of humor.

This is the first letter I received in early 2010.

Hi there, Allen!

I've got to hand it to you.  So help me, if you can find me, you can find anyone.  For fun, I sat down and tallied up where I've been for the last 50 years:  I have moved to 12 different cities in 3 different states; attended 5  different colleges and universities on both coasts, not counting a scholarship to the Soviet Union in 1972.  I've been married twice, one ending in divorce and the second left me a widow in the late 1970's.

Surprisingly, I embraced only one field of study.  I received both my Bachelor's and Masters Degrees in Sociology with an emphasis in empirical research, methodology and statistical analysis.

Only since moving to the damp San Juan Islands, has any moss been able to grow under my feet.

I was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, so I may not make it to the reunion.  But do keep me in your prayers and know that I will be among you regardless of the outcome of treatments.  As an aside, I've really had a lot of fun with the lung cancer diagnosis.  I was informed that the indicated treatment would be chemotherapy and radiation exposure, to which I quip "8 years of swimming around in the Columbia River doesn't do it for ya, huh?"

One innocent declared that my sense of humor would save my life.  Me?  I figure someone's gonna hurt me one day soon.

It was a lovely surprise to hear from you.  Of course, it was also one heck of a shock to realize I've been out of high school for nigh on to 50 years now.  Be gentle, now.  I don't need heart failure added to the seemingly endless list of body breakdowns!

I look forward with growing enthusiasm to meeting my former classmates.  On that note, thank you so very much for taking on the task of herding us all together.  Blessings, Allen. 

Very warmly,

Karen Conant


Then on June 14, 2010, I received this letter from Karen that describes in greater detail her professional and private lives.  Clearly, she had a very full life. 


Many of the events which gave shape and meaning to my life have been omitted due to time and space considerations.  Therefore, I thought I might illuminate some of my history, History I omitted because it sounds like competition.

While married to Ken Zuhr (of Kennewick), I was introduced to the realities of the adage:  "The right way, the wrong way and the Navy way."  I became head of the invitations committee for the commissioning ceremony of the USS Charleston, a helicopter carrier commissioned weeks after the commissioning of the USS Kennedy, an aircraft carrier built from the blueprints of the USS Enterprise, but which was powered by conventional rather than atomic energy.  From a distance, I was able to be in the same room with the notable Kennedys:  Jackie, Ethel, Rose . . . I got fairly dizzy with privilege.  I had the opportunity to shake Rose Kennedy's hand in a reception line at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco only a few days before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. 

Having been so prominently placed on the invitations committee for the commissioning ceremonies, I was appointed to be the guardian of, herder of, and resource for Strom Thurmond of South Carolina when he came to Norfolk for the commissioning of the USS Charleston.  It sounds more important than it was.  I was ill with the Hong Kong flu and tried to function with a fever 102o.  I have no idea how I made it through the ceremonies.  My starkest memory was the observation that Senator Thurmond's son was older than his new wife (whom he wisely left at home).

Shifting forward a couple of years, I had the honor not only of being accepted into graduate school, but with the honor of an assistantship.  During my stint as a Grad Teaching assistant, I received a scholarship to study culture and education in the Soviet Union.  It got just a little dicey because my husband was a Naval Intelligence Officer at the time.  We were one of the first tourist tours after Nixon opened the Soviet Union to non-Soviet bloc countries.  I encountered some difficulty upon entry and I'm certain I was tailed the whole time I was there.  Interestingly, as I was being motored to our plane upon departure, I was reading my passport.  It turns out that my passport wasn't valid until I signed it on page 2, an exercise I completed while in the air on my way to Denmark.

This pretty much closes the door to my "political" career.  I settled down to a temporarily dull life until I remarried and was widowed 18 months later.  The rest of my existence recounts mostly struggle and even as I reside on an anonymous island I don't seem able to escape challenges not faced by anyone else I know.

I have made some important observations, though:

1.     Upon reaching our goal . . . this is when the real work begins.

2.    It is vital that we learn how to "fall".  It's the first thing they teach you when you take ski lessons.  In life, generally, I don't think denial is wise.  However I utilize suppression with abandon.  I make my nightmares queue up and handle them as I feel able.  When it comes to personal tragedy, I truly believe this constitutes an appropriate way to "fall".  I can't avoid the tragedy, but I can manage the situation so I don't feel overwhelmed.

After my diagnosis of M.S. and the first diagnosis of cancer, my parents died.  In many ways, this was a mercy.  Some personal issues, however, drove me to find another place to live . . . to heal.  The heat in Southern California was so injurious to my ability to function because of the MS, I researched cool places and settled on San Juan Island in the straits between Victoria Island and Vancouver B.C.  I remained off the "radar" for five years while I healed.  It was hard but rewarding work. 

In the end, I adopted a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy (did you know those dogs are "scary" smart?) and they have the most appalling bark! And a shelter kitty; a long-hair black sweetie who loves the dog who won't love her back.  I found a wonderful little home, all wood inside and out, and have been living peacefully, if not uneventfully for the last six years. 

I don't know if this is funny or tragic.  I have difficulty winding my way through the irony.  About two weeks after I was diagnosed with cancer, my doggy was diagnosed with Lupus!  We have the same medication schedule, so we take our pills together.  Occasionally, I wonder at the irony. 

At least I have a peace that passes all understanding and one that no one can take away from me.



On June 26, 2011, I responded to Karen’s discouraging report on her cancer treatment. 
Karen:  You make me feel like I’ve been socked in the solar plexus too.  I’m so sorry to hear that report.  Let’s hope the treatment does take.  Meanwhile I have you in my thoughts.
Love, peace, and joy,
Karen responded on the same day. It was the last exchange we had, before I left for a four-month trip to France. When I returned, I telephoned her, but, surprisingly, she did not pick up. I feared the worst. I could not reach her after that. Frankly, I do not know what happened in the last months. I don’t know where she was or if she died alone. That is painful for me to say. I should have found her; I should have said goodbye. In the note that follows, she says it is not “a farewell,” but that is exactly what it became.
The note is very personal. I questioned whether I should print it. In the end, I decided to share it with you for this reason: It offers a glimpse of Karen’s compassion, even during those final days of intense pain, even when she knew she was dying. Still, she was ready to reach out to me, to encourage me. 
Allen:  Thank you for your kind thoughts and well wishes.  Lest you ever think that this effort is too small to count for anything, be disabused.  One of the miracles I’m experiencing is the opportunity to re-connect with my past . . .with lovely people like you who let me know every hour of every day that I’m not alone.
Before I received your letter asking me if I knew where I was and if I was actually myself (excellent questions I may never be able to fully answer), I felt like I had to go through this by myself.  I’m an only child whose family disowned me in my 30’s and so I never learned how to reach out.  Your bringing me into the alumni fold has given me a sense of family I don’t think I’ve ever known.  And your continued interest in my well being has given me such heart.  This isn’t a farewell speech, it is simply a statement of my continued gratitude for all you have done and are doing just by being so quintessentially “Allen”.
I am left with these thoughts. Many of us—perhaps most—have family that we can lean on. But some of us do not. I hope that we—that I—will have the courage and kindness to reach out to those in need: to listen to their stories, to smile upon them, if only for a few moments. Even though Karen and I reconnected only in the last few months of her life, I am richer for it. Karen’s wit and wisdom resonate with me still. Thank you my dear, dear Karen for being my friend.
On June 9, 2011, I telephoned Karen’s home in Friday Harbor. I was hoping that a family member might respond. That did not happen. But then the answering machine played. It was Karen’s voice:
“Hi there. I’m awfully glad you called. Please leave your name and phone number and I will call you as soon as I can. Meanwhile, be kind to yourself. You are unique, and you are precious.”
Thank you for the reassurance, Karen.


  Post Comment

06/26/11 03:44 PM #1    

Ernest "Mike" Huber

Excellent.  Thanks for posting this, Allen.  God has richly blessed us through Karen.

  Post Comment