Karen Kenyon was a stickler for grammar and especially for punctuation. Since she and her husband, Ralph Wirfs, lived less than two blocks from The Daily Astorian, I suggested that if she would walk down the hill around 8 a.m. on weekdays I could give her a desk and a red pen.
One day Kenyon admitted that she had pulled out a marker and corrected the punctuation on a shopkeeper’s sign. In a town that nurtures outsized characters, her punctuation shaming was a delightful display of eccentricity. I joked that our headline would read: “School librarian charged in bizarre sign defacement — ‘I couldn’t take it any more,’ says Kenyon.”
Kenyon was a quiet presence. Behind her Cheshire cat smile was love and compassion that emerged in gestures large and small.
As the librarian at Astor School in the 1990s, Kenyon brought a form of nurturing and learning to a succession of young lives. She also made a difference in the lives of many women when she led the drive to create the Clatsop Community College program called WINGS (Women Interested in Going to School).
Kenyon died recently, after succumbing to a debilitating loss of memory.
Describing Kenyon’s gift, former Astor teacher Ernie Atkinson says: “She was an expert at teaching library skills to very young students in a very unusual and creative manner. As a character she named Viola Swamp and using puppets with very interesting voices and sound effects, she was able to leave them with excellent library skills and, at the same time, keep us all laughing with tears in our eyes. She read stories to the students with such emotion and voice that they would always applaud at the end and ask for more.”
While working as a volunteer in the Astor Library in the mornings, my wife observed a number of children regularly coming by the library for a hug from “Miss Kenyon.”
Judy Bigby, who was principal of Astor in those years, said Kenyon brought authors and book illustrators to show students the creative process. She also taught the Great Books curriculum to upper grade level readers.
When “Kindergarten Cop” was filmed at Astor School in 1989, Kenyon hatched the idea of having students interview the movie’s actors. The video of those interviews is priceless. Our son asked one of the movie’s child actors how much money he made. The boy replied that his agent took care of that.
After graduating with a degree in literature from Illinois Wesleyan University, Kenyon started writing for magazines. But in a 2004 interview with Lacey Hoyer, Kenyon said that work wasn’t very satisfying, as she was “a do-gooder at heart.”
Of all the details I have collected about Karen Kenyon, this one particularly delights me. Judy Atkinson, who taught at Astor, remembers that, “We often would walk after our school day was over. Karen had designed small cards that she would leave in someone’s garden when it brought her delight.”
Following her death, Kenyon’s capacity for friendship was described by the Rev. Sallie Shippen, who had been the first female priest of Grace Episcopal Church. Wrote Shippen, “She tended the garden of her family and friendships as carefully and skillfully as she tended her actual garden on 8th Street.”