I met Karen Hunzeker at the entrance to the men’s room on the second floor of Fort Lewis College’s Noble Hall. She needed to clean it and I desperately needed to use it before teaching three consecutive classes. Graciously, she let me go first.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about Hunzeker as a retired teacher, coach and custodian. I chose to visit her ranch in Hay Gulch when I learned that she will be giving it to FLC. Her two mixed-breed dogs Runner and Shush (Navajo for bear) greeted me and Melissa Mount, FLC’s vice president for advancement and CEO of the Fort Lewis College Foundation, at the gate. They barked. We waited.
Hunzeker came out and took us into her house adorned with photos of her climbing Colorado’s Fourteeners, Christmas pictures sent by her former students and a kitchen motto that proudly proclaimed “LIFE without DOGS … I don’t think so.” She has cousins in Norway and a father who chauffeured President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. Growing up in Englewood, Hunzeker attended Adams State College and earned her degree to teach physical education. Her teaching and coaching career took her around the Four Corners during 27 years of commitment to young people, including time spent on the White Mountain Apache Reservation where she taught and coached track and field. She then moved on to the Tuba City Boarding School where she had Hopi and Navajo students and coached volleyball and girls’ basketball. She also spent time at Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, as a teacher and coach. Summers she worked out of Alpine, Arizona, as a firefighter.
With her partner, Eleanor Frazier (an FLC alum), Hunzeker said, “We came on drives and we came up here to this part of La Plata County and found our property.” They bought a small house and ranch in Hay Gulch. Frazier has passed on so Hunzeker decided to deed her remaining 100+ acres of ranchland, a house, barns and farm equipment as an unrestricted gift to FLC. The Hay Gulch Ditch flows through the property, which borders the Old Fort up a steep oak brush slope to the south.
“I think a lot of FLC and I think a lot of the coaches and students,” Hunzeker said. After retiring from teaching, she worked on the college’s custodial staff for 16½ years, and now at 74 she’s handed in her mops, buckets, brooms and brushes. She stays close to home with her three horses, two of which were wild mustangs, her two dogs, and Hank the Cat whom we never met. She keeps her saddles in her house and regularly puts up grass hay. This year, because of our abundant snow, she raked and baled 360 hay bales “and they were heavy, not light,” she tells me with a grin. Outside next to the barn she keeps a vintage Chevrolet Camaro under a car cover.
Over the years, Hunzeker has attended hundreds of athletic events on campus and has made regular gifts of $100 or more to different athletic programs. She’s given thousands of dollars toward scholarships for track, volleyball, basketball, cross-country, lacrosse and soccer. Hunzeker has also donated historical materials to Center of Southwest Studies on campus.
“Karen’s gift of her ranch to FLC is deeply touching and a testament to her enduring commitment to this college,” Mount said as we drove to Hay Gulch. “But this gift does not surprise me, as Karen is an incredibly kind and generous person who cares deeply about FLC. Most importantly, Karen is passionate about supporting students (especially student athletes) and will do anything to see them succeed.”
If the college ever decided to sell the property decades hence, an endowment fund would be established to support female athletes. For years, she was the Athletics Department custodian, and according to the FLC Foundation, “she put her heart into cleaning the locker rooms in Whalen Gymnasium and formed friendships with student-athletes as they balanced classes, practices and games.” Faculty and staff tell lots of stories about Henseker’s support of students including her impromptu dancing at a women’s volleyball match, inspiring the FLC team to win.
“Karen has gone above and beyond for the Department of Athletics for many years. She cares deeply about the student-athlete experience and has become part of the team,” said FLC Athletic Director Travis Whipple. “Karen has always contributed to the success of the Skyhawks and continues to make an impact!”
Head Volleyball Coach Giedre Tarnauskaaite agrees.
“I think it is safe to say that Karen is Skyhawks’ biggest fan,” she said. “She cares deeply about each team and always finds the time to chat with coaches. Volleyball players absolutely adore Karen and one of them even dressed as her for Halloween a few years back.”
If athletes and their coaches love and respect Hunzeker, so does the FLC faculty.
“She’s like the most mild-mannered person, but she’s also like Superman,” said history professor Dr. Michael Martin. “I see her like mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. She’s always there willing to help. She remembers people’s names and she loves to talk. She really knows this place. And once you get to know her, she’s got a wicked sense of humor.”
Hunzeker is her own one-person booster club for FLC athletics and sports. Because of that, she has her own fan club of coaches and professors who admire her and cheer her on. Positive, supportive energy flows in both directions.
“Karen’s gift of her ranch to FLC is deeply touching and a testament to her enduring commitment to the college,” said Dr. Missy Thompson, associate professor in the Department of Health & Human Performance. “From my first day, Karen has been hugely welcoming. Over the years she has become an integral part of our department. Karen is passionate about supporting students (especially student athletes) and will do anything to see them succeed.”
Hunzeker gave Mount and me a brief tour of her ranch compound. We learned about her good hay crop and in the barn saw former FLC sports banners from years gone by. She told us how to kill weeds by using clear apple cider vinegar, and she showed us her trees full of serviceberries. She’d already eaten her summer crop of plums and apricots.
After years of teaching Native Americans across the Four Corners, and then supporting student athletes at FLC, Hunzeker at 74 has slowed down a bit. She isn’t climbing more Fourteeners anytime soon, but she’ll be making a lasting impact with the gift of her ranch and estate to help the next generation of FLC graduates. In a way, it’s a gift for us all, because today’s college students are tomorrow’s leaders.
Winston Churchill understood. He said, “We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.”
Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.