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Remembering Karen Marie Rolstadi

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In Memory of Karen Rolstad

I met Karen Rolstad when she was 26 years old. She was already an accomplished musician, had a master’s degree and was a junior high school counselor in a Seattle suburb. I was 12. Karen had come to my grade school to introduce herself to the sixth graders who would be moving up to junior high the following year.

The first thing Karen learned about me was from my sister, who told her that I came home from elementary school earlier in the week with a new vocabulary word to try out on the family at dinner. With a big sigh, I told my parents and sister I was feeling very milk and holly. Unsure what I was getting at, my mother asked what “feeling milk and holly” meant. I replied, “you know, sad.” After hearing that story, Karen never forgot it. And almost every time I would see her she would say, “Can you believe we’ve known each other all these years since milk and holly?”

You may not know this, but Karen Rolstad invented the smiley face. I know because she drew it on all of my excuse slips when she called me out of class to her office those many, many years ago. She introduced me to Farrell's ice cream parlors, real tacos before Taco Bell, Russian food and Greek food.

After five years at Cascade Junior High, Karen moved to Hazen High School in Renton, where she counseled hundreds, maybe thousands of students. I can tell you first hand that Karen was an amazing counselor. She was kind and interested, but no push over. Having Karen as a counselor was like having your own private therapist. But a really good one.There are dozens of her students who will tell you that she saved their lives. She had a gift for making her students recognize their own special gifts and worth. If you were one of Karen’s students she not only made you want to be a better person. She made you a better person.

And she did that by listening. Karen was not just an active listener. She was a bulldozer at listening. She could draw out the most reticent students. She listened so hard and asked so many questions I told her on more than one occasion she had given me a tummy ache.

As I’m sure all of you know, Karen was a voracious reader. She was also a prolific letter writer. Combine the two and you have a blizzard of reading suggestions in the mail. The US Postal service should build her a shrine.

While I was living in Chicago and Los Angeles I received countless clippings of articles, photocopies of essays and book suggestions. She sent her Greek friend Baitzar so much reading material that Baitzar’s husband, Hrair, complained to Karen that Baitzar spent too much time reading and she didn’t have time to wash the dishes. So Karen sent Hrair a stack of paper plates.

Karen introduced me to the works of Elizabeth Kubler Ross, John McPhee, Terry Tempest Williams, Edna St. Vincent-Millay, Tagore and Carl Rogers, to name but a few. At her suggestion I studied the Dead Sea Scrolls and comparative religions. She gave me copies of The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Prince. I have subscribed to The New Yorker for nearly 40 years because of Karen. We bought our copies of the very first issue of Ms. Magazine together on University Avenue in Seattle. We were fans of the Joffrey Ballet and went whenever they were in town. Classical music was Karen’s passion and was a happy discovery for me at a very young age. Now I’m one of those people who weep during opera and even some symphonies.

I have saved all of Karen’s letters. And emails. Relatively late in the 20th century someone finally convinced Karen to try email, and there was no looking back. This is the first email she sent me dated 9/26/200 with the subject line: New Way of Communicating.

Hi Jo: Just wanted to say hello on such a lovely day in Seattle. The boys and I are getting ready for our second walk of the day to enjoy the sunshine. It was so nice to have a relaxing, longer visit with you last week. I look forward to our next talk already. We have watched some of the Olympics this week and were pleased when Cathy Freeman won a gold as it must have brought such great joy to her Aborigine people. We also are proud of Megan Quann from Puyallup to win two golds. Jan heard that she got up at 3 am each day to go practice. Such discipline. Hope your work is going smoothly. Hi to Randy and Tess. Love, Karen

Shortly after that, Karen discovered the “forward” button. We have all been the beneficiaries of that modern miracle. Michael Moore can thank Karen Rolstad for half of his blog readers. Maybe more.

Karen taught me to vent my frustration by throwing marshmallows at the TV whenever Nixon was on. And the invectives that would come out of her mouth – “Hooey! Hrrrrmph! And Bleck!” are but a few. The marshmallow thing has come in handy more and more over the years.

Karen and Jan were always my favorite couple. They were delightful to be around, especially as they supported each other through some rough patches with Jan’s health. They were always respectful, even when disagreeing.

Karen has touched and changed for the better thousands of lives. I count mine as one of them. I would not be the person I am today had Karen not been in my life. It has been hard to adjust to a world without her. I think of her every day and catch myself saying, "I wonder if Karen has read this yet?" Karen was a gift in my life and I will love her forever.

Jo Shilling
January 2013
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