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In Memoriam - Karen and Tom Erb

February 25, 2016

Karen Simmons Erb (June 4, 1944 – February 4, 2016) and Thomas Owen Erb (February 18, 1945 – November 27, 2015).

Karen and Tom spent most of their lives in Lawrence Kansas, but for the past 3 years lived in New Haven Connecticut. They passed within two months of one another with all of their children by their side. They could not live without each other.

They were parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors, travelers, art collectors, athletes, health food enthusiasts, conversationalists, punsters, political junkies, NPR listeners, movie buffs, and life-long members of the Lawrence Cooperative Mercantile.

Born in Fort Wayne Indiana, they both graduated from South Side High School (Karen 1962, Tom 1963). They left to pursue their educations, Karen at Indiana University (1965) and Tom at DePauw University (1967).

Karen and Tom were together for 50 adventure-filled years.

After graduating from IU in the spring of 1965, Karen followed her dreams by joining the Peace Corps in Nigeria, West Africa. In her first year of teaching in the Peace Corps, the Biafran Civil War broke out in and her school was closed and became a military compound. She continued teaching in Nigeria for 8 more months, but was eventually evacuated from Benin City within earshot of gunfire. This brought to an end Karen's exciting and, at times, frightening 20 months as a Peace Corps volunteer, at the age of 23. She was not quite ready to return Stateside, and decided to continue her teaching experience in Spain and Portugal.

Back in Fort Wayne in the winter of 1967 marked the beginning of "Karen and Tom" and their 50-year love affair. Karen was living in Lisbon, Portugal and Tom was teaching middle school in Wilmette, Illinois while pursuing a Master's degree at Northwestern University. Tom found Karen to be the most fascinating person he had ever met and he was eager to pursue a relationship with her. This was made difficult by the fact that she soon returned to her European adventure, and he to teaching.

Tom spent the next 50 years of his life trying to keep up with Karen! In the summer of 1969, he traveled to Europe to pursue this fascinating woman. He convinced her to return to the U.S. and during the summer of 1970 they took a 2 ½ month, 14-thousand-mile road trip around North America in a Dodge convertible. During that trip, Tom proposed to Karen. She said she would think about it. In her mind, she had more adventures to pursue prior to settling down. In the meantime, she moved to San Francisco to live with her sister Mary Ann, and consider Tom's proposal. Apparently, she realized that life with Tom would be it's own adventure, and a year later, they were married on September 3, 1971. After teaching middle school for two more years in the states, they accepted teaching jobs in an international school in Luanda, Angola, West Africa in 1973. They taught in Luanda during the dying days of the Portuguese colonial empire, while traveling extensively in Africa.

In 1974 they returned to the United States to attend graduate school at the University of Florida. It was here where their family started to grow with Christopher being born in 1975 and Gregory in 1976. After four years in Florida, Tom received his Ph.D. in curriculum theory and Karen received her Master's in African studies. Then, after twenty-six rejection letters, the University of Kansas offered Tom the job of building its newly approved middle school education program. So, after six years living in the tropics and subtropics, they moved back to the Midwest to Lawrence Kansas in 1978, with Chris (3) and Greg (1 ½). Over the next 34 years of living in Lawrence, both their careers and their family grew.

Tom moved up the ranks of the professorate at KU while Karen became an instructor in the Applied English Center (AEC) teaching English as a Second Language to international students. During Tom's teaching career, he co-authored 5 books on middle school curriculum and team teaching, 17 book chapters, and supervised the dissertations of 17 doctoral students. While at KU, Tom founded the Journal of the Kansas Association for Middle Level Education (KAMLE), which he edited for 8 years. In 1994 he became editor of the Middle School Journal for the National Middle School Association (NMSA), which kept him in touch with what was going on in middle school education throughout the United States for the next 15 years. In June 2005 Tom went on emeritus status at the University of Kansas and subsequently held two distinguished professorships at his Alma Mater, DePauw University, retiring from the Boswell Professorship in 2010, at the same time Karen retired.

Upon their arrival to Lawrence in 1978, Karen earned a second Master's degree, this time in Teaching English as a Second Language. While studying for this degree, she taught as a graduate assistant at the AEC, which would become her teaching home for the next 30 years. During her career teaching at KU, Karen twice took the opportunity to teach English in Asolo, Italy. Karen finished her teaching career working with international students at DePauw University in 2010.

As their careers expanded, so did their family. Brian was born in 1982. After three boys, Karen decided to take biology into her own hands and guarantee herself a daughter. The Erb Family adopted Emily in 1989 after two years working with the American and Mexican consulates to secure the necessary paperwork. They made several trips to visit Emily during her two years living with a foster family outside Cuernavaca, and Karen even took Spanish lessons at KU so she could be the spokesperson for the family on those trips. Their family was complete-almost. In 1994 Karen and Tom became foster parents for Reggie Harrison during his senior year in high school. They also had two exchange students over the years, and those students' families have remained life-long friends: Eduardo Molina from Ecuador and Eric Uribe from Mexico. 

After several years focused on raising her family, Karen told Tom that when she turned 50, she was going to start traveling again. Many of those trips were connected to international study, Peace Corps service, or weddings of their children, nieces and nephews. They visited Christopher during his time in Ecuador, Spain, and Costa Rica, and Chris' wife Kim during her Peace Corps service in Belize. They traveled with Brian to Uganda during his study abroad experience. The whole family visited Mexico many times over the years to visit Emily's birthplace, once even to meet her birth mother. Since Karen's Peace Corps work and Tom's study abroad in the 1960s, they lived in or visited 60 countries abroad. All told, in addition to Canada, they visited 20 European countries, 7 in Central & South America, 22 in Africa, and 8 in Asia. Their international travel and the wonderful memories it provided was a great source of pleasure for Karen and Tom for many years.

In retirement, they learned that Karen had Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), an atypical Parkinsonian disorder. In 2012, they moved from their family home of 30 years near downtown Lawrence to New Haven, Connecticut to live with Christopher's family. In 2015, Emily also moved to New Haven to help care for Karen. 

Karen and Tom are survived by their loving family, including: Christopher Thomas and his wife Kimberly and their children Madeleine Deone (8) and Emerson Luciano (5); Gregory Marcus and his wife Vikki and their children, Isaiah Chance Gregory (17), Gwen (12) and Griffin (10); Brian Benjamin and his wife Lauren and their three daughters Olivia Karen (2), Addison Quinn (3.5 months), and Jacqueline Roe (3.5 months); and Emily Renee and her Alaskan Husky, Max.

Those who knew Karen and Tom know that they could strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere. They taught us that people don't care if you speak their language. They will be warm and welcoming as soon as we take a moment to try and communicate. PSP took away Karen's voice, but it could never take away her talent for connecting to people.

PSP was devastating to both Karen and Tom. In a way, however, it was also purifying. Tom was completely dedicated to and focused on caring for his soul mate. As she lost her ability to care for herself, Karen remained determined, compassionate, and focused on others. She was pure love.

Please consider donations to the following causes:

  • The Karen S. Erb or the Thomas O. Erb Endowed Scholarship at KU.
  • The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE ) Foundation in Columbus Ohio.
  • The Parkinson's Research and Advocacy Organization

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