| IN MEMORIAM
By Royal Calkins
Some people, perhaps many, will remember Karen Ravn as the pug lady of Pacific Grove. For several years early in the century she was out there two or three times a day on the sidewalks or the Rec Trail herding her trio of tan, flat-faced purebreds wherever they wished to be herded.
She was the ultimate dog lover but she was much more. One of the very best-educated people on the Monterey Peninsula, a Peninsula brimming with the well educated and accomplished. Even possibly the smartest. A terribly shy woman who took an odd career path, who once had her own line of Hallmark greeting cards and could translate dense Russian into English. Someone who had mastered some of the most advanced forms of mathematics.
Karen died at age 75 a few hours into the New Year at an assisted living home in Pacific Grove. She died of natural causes, victim of a raft of medical conditions that had turned a natural athlete — swimming and tennis — into a frail shell of herself.
The pugs were long gone by then but she was comforted by another canine trio, a mother and daughter pair of rescued Pekingese, like pugs but with far too much hair, and a deaf and blind Pekingese pup. The rescue group sent the pup to her knowing she would never say no.
After a fall at her Pacific Grove home, Karen had been confined for weeks to a cold nursing home room in Santa Cruz. There she spent Christmas and her Christmas eve birthday essentially alone, no visitors allowed because she had contracted a mild case of COVID through the nursing home’s inattentiveness. Those who knew her are thankful she was able to spend her last couple of days in the assisted living place under actual blankets and a blanket of dust-mop dogs.
Karen was my friend for nearly two decades. The conventions of journalism require that I call her Ravn, Ms. Ravn or even Dr. Ravn because of the doctorate from Stanford, but I can’t do that. I’ll have to call her Karen here. Hope no one minds.
I met her in 2002. Looking for a new career for which she was already extremely well qualified, she had enrolled in the science writing masters program at UC Santa Cruz. It has produced numerous scientifically minded writers who went on to some of the top science publications in the world. The students were required to intern at publications in the area. At the time I was city editor of the Monterey Herald and we were lucky enough to draw Karen for the first quarter.
She didn’t have the money for second-quarter tuition, however, so she left UCSC and joined us at the Herald as a full-time reporter and columnist. I’m not sure why but she was already living in Pacific Grove. Her job at the Herald didn’t make PG affordable, but she got by somehow.
- Ravn lived with congenital anosmia, a rare condition. Read her first-person account here
She excelled, no surprise. She excelled at anything she tackled, except the mundane. It was one of the smartest hires we had ever made, and so was she.
When I gave her an assignment she didn’t have to hear the whole spiel. She knew whom to call, people whose names and numbers were written in her address book in the tiniest handwriting imaginable. I asked why she wrote like that. She shrugged an “I don’t know” back at me. I guess it was a manifestation of her desire not to be noticed. It was OK to admire her work but I think she might have liked to have been invisible. She often answered her phone in a voice as small as her handwriting.
Things went well at the Herald but after a couple years she grew tired of being encouraged to write even more about science and less about the pugs. Did I mention she was stubborn?
She showed us by moving on to write for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and then to produce regular columns for the Los Angeles Times science page, for Scientific American magazine and other weighty publications. She wrote about complex topics but made everything accessible, the way only good writers can.
'She was a true original'
‘She was a true original,” recalled Rosie Mestel, her editor at the Times and again later at other publications.
“My favorite piece she wrote for us was the first-person column about being born without a sense of smell. (See her story here). But all the stories she wrote had a certain sparkle — an originality of humor and turn of phrase — that you cannot teach someone. I used to tell her, and wasn’t joking, that by rights she should be rich and famous.
“Oh, and because she wrote for the LA Times we used to sometimes receive requests from people wanting to contact her and obtain permission to use a little poem she had once written while working for Hallmark. Read it here.
“One woman wrote asking for permission to use it as a tattoo, if I’m remembering correctly. And so, as part of the joking back and forth that she and I used to do, I once wrote a fake letter from someone called Cap’n Jim asking if he could inscribe the poem on the prow of his boat. She was not fooled.”
Karen grew up in Colton, an unremarkable suburb of San Bernardino perhaps best known as the one-time home of the nation’s busiest railroad crossing without an overpass or underpass. Her father taught English at Colton High, her mother was Katherine Ravn, nee Wassenaar.
Word has it that she earned perfect scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, something accomplished by about one of every 50,000 college-bound high school students. She had perfect scores as well on the Graduate Record Exam, according to her transcripts. About 4 percent of GRE takers record perfect marks.
She graduated in two years from UC Riverside and received a master’s degree in math there as well. She completed the work for a doctorate but didn’t complete her dissertation. I don’t know why.
Then there was a master’s in journalism from USC and a postgraduate period studying poetry at Sarah Lawrence.
I can’t be sure about the chronology but I believe that’s when, in the late 1970s, she answered an ad and became a writer of greeting cards at the Hallmark headquarters.
“Soon after she arrived at Hallmark in Kansas City, Karen became one of the most admired and respected writers in the social expression industry,” said her Hallmark editor, Ed Cunningham.
“With her kind heart and generous spirit, she created sentiments of gentle prose or lyrical verse celebrating family and friendship, caring and love. Karen excelled at the craft of helping people share what they were feeling for one another in times of joy and times of sadness and times in between.”
Another friend in Kansas City said Hallmark retailers put in special orders for Karen’s cards because they sold so well. She even had her own line, under a pseudonym that no one has been able to recall in these recent weeks.
She also wrote books for Hallmark, inspirational poetry and quotations, the kind of thinnish books you might send to your aunt, and children’s books. I have a copy of her “Mighty Machines at Work,” a pop-up book but not just any pop-up book. Like other children’s books written by Karen, it was produced in consultation with the founder of the children’s nursery program at Stanford.
Another friend from Kansas City, Jeannie Thomas, said Karen understood children.
“She had a special genius with children that reflected her unconditional respect and high regard for them. She listened to children carefully with full and active attention and had a way of letting them know she was on their side in the world.”
Ed Cunningham’s wife, Gail, who also wrote cards, remembered that Karen had cats then and that greeting card colleagues often asked her to cat-sit.
Karen’s math skills also were put to good use in Kansas City, great use actually,
At a tennis club, she became a friend of a federal lawyer who was involved in the avalanche of litigation set off by the July 17, 1981, collapse of two overhead walkways at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City.
One hundred and fourteen people were killed; 239 were injured. It was the nation’s worst structural collapse of the 20th Century. Everyone sued everyone.
Karen’s lawyer friend told her months later that the armies of lawyers involved were having great difficulty figuring out the fairest way to apportion millions upon millions of dollars in settlement money for the victims’ families. The challenge was to satisfy the plaintiffs, the defendants, the insurance companies, the judges and others.
'Karen to the rescue, Karen and her brilliant mathematical mind.'
Karen to the rescue, Karen and her brilliant mathematical mind. What she did was come up with a formula, a quadratic equation, that determined how the settlement fund could be adjusted equitably down the line as larger awards at the top were distributed.
As one of the key lawyers involved, Bob Fisk, said years later at a federal judicial conference, “We had a formula that only a few mathematicians and Professor Francis McGovern … can understand.”
McGovern was the Duke University law professor who pioneered methods to settle tremendously complex legal cases through negotiation and equally complex formulae such as Karen’s.
The first half of her equation looked something like this:
x=(𝐴𝐴 + 𝑃𝑃 + 𝑆𝑆) ± √ 𝐴𝐴2 + 𝑃𝑃2 + 𝑆𝑆2 + 2𝐴𝐴(𝑃𝑃 + 𝑆𝑆) + 2𝑆𝑆𝑃𝑃 – 4𝑆𝑆𝑃𝑃
Karen should have gone on tour to help demolish the notion that girls and women can’t succeed in math. Here’s something she wrote about that in a column for the Herald
… Which brings us to a new study published in the journal Science last month contradicting some age-old, widely held stereotypes by showing that girls are just as good at math as boys are.
The study analyzed standardized test scores from more than 7 million students, in grades 2 through 11, in 10 states including California. And it found no difference between girls’ and boys’ math scores.
The study also put the kibosh on the notion that math genius is just a guy thing. True, among whites, boys scored in the top 1 percent more often than girls. But among Asian Americans, girls did so more often than boys.
Boys do outperform girls a bit on the math part of the SAT. But the study authors chalk this up to the fact that many more girls than boys take the test — which dilutes the girls’ sample in terms of the top-notched-ness of their academic performance.
Still, the stereotypes persist. Too often, girls are not expected to do well in math — by their teachers, their parents, themselves.
So when they run into a hard problem — or have to decide whether to sign up for a hard class — they may be tempted to grumble, as I did Saturday (while she was trying to install a lock at her home), “I don’t need this. I don’t like this. This is not my thing at all.”
But if I’d given up on my project, I’d have left a big hole in my door.
And when girls give up on math, they leave a big hole in the ranks of scientists and engineers.
Installing a new lock is a far cry from solving a differential equation.
But girls can do both.
For reasons she never explained to me, and perhaps to no one, Karen decided sometime in the early 1980s that her future was not in greeting cards or math but in psychology. So it was off to Stanford, where she was to earn a doctorate in cognitive psychology.
As she wrote later in an application to UCSC, she researched language acquisition and the difference between the way people might describe things and the things that they actually are. As a partial explanation, she wrote that someone might describe their hungry dog as a garbage disposal. She took a deep dive into the way toddlers learn to distinguish the words big and small but how it can take years to make sense of the different concepts they can represent. I would have loved to have heard an explanation of all that, but I never got the chance.
Karen is survived by her sister, Cecelia Traugh, a college administrator in New York, and her brother-in-law, Andy Doan, a retired teacher.
Traugh suggests that any memorial contributions go to the donor’s local humane society. I add an alternative: a donation to medical technician Gloria Kumer at the assisted living home where Karen spent her last days. Gloria’s family adopted the Pekingese dogs, including the special needs pup, and may need help with the vet bills. Gift cards or whatever could be sent to her at Del Monte Assisted Living, 1229 David Ave., Pacific Grove, 93950.
Which reminds me to give a shout out to Dr. Nick Macy and the lovely staff at Pacific & Santa Cruz Veterinary Specialists in Santa Cruz, who cared for Karen’s dogs over the years, and while she was trying to recover from the fall.
Featured image: Karen Ravn | Provided
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