Karen Wysaske shares her lifelong love of learning in many ways.
Leadership means different things to different people. To some, it’s about authority or status; to others, it’s about effective management. To Karen Wysaske, it’s about service.
“Leadership to me is giving back—to my home community, my school, my students and their families—so that they can see what has made my life so great,” Karen said.
The recipient of WSU Vancouver’s 2023 Notable Alumni Award, Karen focuses particularly on giving to individuals—scholarships for college students, a musical instrument for a high school student, scarves and hats for people who might otherwise suffer from the cold, afghans to comfort the members of a widows’ group to which she belongs.
In 2021, Karen lost her father, Clarence Keiser, and her husband, Ron (recipient of one of the 25 inaugural Notable Alumni Awards in 2014). She had retired from teaching two years earlier to take care of them. “She altruistically applied the same unstoppable work ethic and care that she exemplified in her classroom to their final months,” said Holly Jones, her daughter, who nominated her. “She now spends a great deal of her time using skills she taught others in her home economics and math classrooms to make blankets and cold-weather items that she donates to individuals and organizations.”
Cougar through and through
Karen grew up in a family that valued education. “The expectation was that it was important to learn and go to school,” she recalls. There was never a question of whether she’d attend college. She earned her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude at WSU Pullman in home economics education in 1974 and her master’s degree in education at WSU Vancouver in 1990.
Her husband was her childhood sweetheart in Washougal, where she still lives, and they both were Pullman graduates who earned master’s degrees at WSU Vancouver. Throughout her teaching career Karen taught home economics and mathematics in middle school and high school, and at various times she also taught preschool and adult education. She mentored many student teachers. “It just makes your heart happy to be part of someone’s legacy of learning,” she said.
In 2008, while teaching at Washougal High School, she was named Clark County Teacher of the Year. “Some of my students nominated me, so that made it really special,” Karen said. “I felt like I had a legacy to carry on because it was always really important to me to be kind and caring and have joy in modeling learning.”
The Wysaskes made WSU a big part of their philanthropy, contributing to scholarships at both WSU Pullman and WSU Vancouver and making annual donations—Ron to the business department and Karen to the education department. “We always felt like we wanted to give back to WSU as a legacy for other students to have the opportunity to learn and grow,” Karen said. Their home reflects their Cougar pride. “I had to look hard, but I found crimson and gray brick for the outside of the house,” she said. “My classroom had a corner that was totally Couged out. The neat thing about it is that many of the kids we had in class went to WSU. It was so fun to see them become Cougs.”
Life is different these days, but no less busy. In addition to using her knitting, crocheting and sewing skills to benefit others, she is happily involved in the lives of her three children and three grandchildren. Her children are Kelly Ritter, a music educator in several districts in Clark County; Holly Jones, a senior development strategist and writer at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.; and Kevin Wysaske, a credit analyst at Riverview Bank in Vancouver. All three are Cougars—Kelly graduated from WSU Pullman and Holly and Kevin from WSU Vancouver.
The widows’ and widowers’ group developed spontaneously as friends and neighbors lost spouses. “It just grows, and we started getting more connected,” Karen said. “We text each other every day to encourage each other. We don’t ask ‘How are you?’ but ‘What are you going to do today or tomorrow?’ And we send each other pictures of what we’re doing. You sit here alone, and if you aren’t doing something for someone, you start feeling sorry for yourself.”
Her personal philosophy guides her: “I resolve to get up early, learn something new every day, be productive and find joy in the journey,” Karen said, “even though sometimes it’s really hard to smile through the tears.”