Karen Beth Lenz, 1945-2009
Class of 1967
By Ann Vibert Wuelfing, Class of 1990
Karen Beth Lenz was my friend for nearly 43 years. I met her in the fall of 1966 on the day I moved into Mercy Dorm at the start of my sophomore year, the beginning of a new chapter for both of us. Her room was just down the hall from mine and after my family left she came along and scooped me up and declared we were friends. I never quite understood why. She later told me she thought I was slow, because I had so little to say those first few weeks so perhaps it was a rescue.
By that time, she had been at SJC for two years, commuting from Rocky Hill until her father agreed to pay for her senior year on campus. She had also converted from her parents’ German Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism. I originally thought she had done it, as she did so many things, to annoy her father. But she always said it had saved her life. She stuck with the Church through many disagreements and her faith became the mainspring of her life.
Although she weighed over 300 pounds she never let her ungainly body hold her back. Instead, it powered her opinions, driving them deep into people’s minds. Her voice was melodious and flexible, with variations suitable for any occasion from wheedling an extension from a teacher to picketing a military installation, and she used it to deliver those opinions on all occasions, on any level of combat and on every topic.
That year, we became close friends with the newest English instructor, Stephanie Brill, a young and pretty Jewish Princess from Brooklyn who brought an irresistible mix of New York sophistication and youthful enthusiasm to her classes and to the all-girl Hamlet production where Karen played a quirky and memorable Polonius.
Brill, as Karen always referred to her, and Karen shared a deep love of New York City and Karen passed that along to me by taking me there many times that year and after. We caught the first train on Saturday morning and came back on the redeye (or stayed over at the midtown Y if we had enough money) and spent our days in Washington Square or the cafes and folk clubs and tiny theaters of the West Village, or trolling for bargain books at the Strand on Broadway, or uptown visiting the penguins at the Central Park Zoo or the sculpture garden at MOMA: a world away from Hartford.
At other times we sneaked off campus to Elizabeth Park where on the warm days we could sleep and read and talk and dream on the great lawns stretched out forever. On the cold or simply rainy days, we retreated to the park’s snack bar within sight of the pond with its ducks and pigeons. The menu there was limited but you could get a hot dog with as many options as any street cart’s, and bitter coffee or sweet cocoa, and, of course, popcorn for the pigeons. But mainly, we could sit on the benches and chairs of the small dining area, deserted in those off-hours, and talk.
Every subject was serious and meaningful and intense. We read Kafka and Camus and Kerouac and Tolkien; we discussed Howl and Henry Miller and Dylan Thomas. I spent a whole cold and rainy day with Karen in the snack bar reading A Moveable Feast, sitting on one of the rough benches shivering in my thin coat and squinting to see the pages with Karen nearby, scribbling away at the latest of her rambling poems about religion and social justice.
Karen was a devotee of St. Francis of Assisi and a huge fan of Thomas Merton but she was most influenced by Dorothy Day. All three had lived in the world before undergoing a conversion and struggling afterward to balance their spiritual and public lives. So it was for Karen – far more than for me. I, a lifetime Catholic with a tendency toward acceptance rather than protest, was sheltered and unadventurous. But Karen demanded more of the world and, as her friend, I was invited to share her experiences.
Karen had spent the summers of 1965 and 1966 working at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown. This experience left her with some strong opinions about patient care and a fondness for the works of Ken Kesey. She visited there occasionally afterward and took me along once to the locked men's ward where she had spent most of her time. She kidded with the men, coaxing them outside of their personal cells in that stifling place of green paint and linoleum, worn chairs and harsh lights, cigarettes and card games. Most of them responded to her in some way and one of them, Sebby, who did not talk, had painted her a poster on butcher paper that read simply “love”.
We both left school the following year but stayed in the Hartford area. Karen worked as a reporter for the Catholic Transcript, the official organ of the Archdiocese of Hartford, and lived in an apartment on Elm Street in Hartford overlooking the stage door of the Bushnell Memorial. Religion and politics seemed to be converging; the preparatory work of the JFK presidency, the civil rights movement and Vatican II was done, the folk scene was moving into both churches and electric rock and momentum was building toward the great anti-war debate.
For Karen, this atmosphere gradually came to center on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Here all of her interests – writing, social justice, mental health, human rights, pacifism, the Catholic Church, folk music and more – came together in a radical and outspoken way which suited her dramatic personality. We stopped by the Catholic Worker's Houston Street headquarters several times during our trips to New York City and Karen reveled in the anarchistic bustle of activity there.
Eventually we went to Tivoli, New York to meet Dorothy Day in person at the Catholic Worker farm there. For Karen, it was a pilgrimage; for me, it was another in a long list of adventures with my friend. We had gone together to see the Fugs and the Living Theater; Endgame and Antigone; Allen Ginsberg and John Berryman. I reveled in them all.
In 1970, Karen moved to Philadelphia and spent the rest of her life there first as a psychiatric aide, working with those spending their lives in institutions of last resort and, when those institutions began to close, working with the same people on the streets, fighting to get them care and fighting for their right to reject it. Later she returned to the writings of Dorothy Day and began a life of service to the marginalized, political and religious activism and writing as the director of the Philadelphia Catholic Worker community, living in poverty, serving sandwiches to the hungry, collecting clothes for the destitute, providing a safe haven for the homeless and Christian companionship to the lost. As she served, she protested: Spending on guns instead of people, and the intransigence of her beloved Church, being her primary targets. And she turned her gift as a writer increasingly to providing a voice to the voiceless and a window into the inner city.
During those Philadelphia years I saw less of Karen. We met every couple of years in New York, mostly revisiting our old haunts but always seeing a show and trying a new restaurant. Our tastes had diverged – she insisted on seeing Gypsy with Tyne Daly while I voted for Night of the Iguana with Cherry Jones; she adored Thai food and I craved Mexican; and, on our last visit, she opted to wait outside in the sun while I toured the 42nd Street Library in its refurbished glory. But we always talked – whether in person, by phone or by letter. But, I, more experienced and well-read than my 1967 self, still followed in her wake as she introduced me to new authors, new foods and new ideas.