COLUMBIA — In the wake of the shooting deaths of Karen Kahler and her two daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16, a mourning community was urged to respond in meaningful and constructive ways.
Nearly 80 members of the Columbia community gathered Thursday night at the Activity and Recreation Center for a candlelight vigil in memory of the Kahlers.
Bill Ryan, a member of the ARC, reminded the crowd that although people tend to wonder, question and feel a need to understand, reason cannot provide an answer.
"We ask why and reason fails us," he said.
A tall, thin vase with sunflowers and yellow roses sat in the center of a table decorated with white twinkling lights and pictures of Karen and her children. A few feet away stood an illuminated, bright blue trifold board with a large picture of Karen in the center and pictures of her children.
As people filed in, "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac played, followed by Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" and a few other songs. A staccato of sniffles could be heard during silent moments.
Karen, 44, was an instructor and personal trainer at the center before being shot and killed, along with her daughters, on Nov. 28. Her husband, James Kraig Kahler, 46, has been charged with capital murder for the crimes. Karen's grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89, died Tuesday from injuries related to the incident.
“We just wanted something positive about Karen because she was such an inspiration,” said Hallie Rainwater, one of Karen’s boot camp students. Emily, Lauren and Wight were also honored.
Sean Kahler, Karen's 10-year-old son, escaped the scene unharmed. His well-being was also prayed for during the vigil.
Patty King, another member of the class, described her trainer as easy-going and lovely and has many memories of her.
“I remember when she talked about her kids — Sean’s love of fishing, the girls playing in a band and even Karen’s days in a garage band,” King said.
King said about 10 members took Karen’s class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The women planned the vigil when they met for their workout on Tuesday.
Erika Coffman, the recreation services manager for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said Karen was an important employee at the center.
“She was just a valued member of our facility … a joy and a pleasure, and she will definitely be missed,” Coffman said. “Tonight showed what an influence she had on (her students') lives. It’s a great representation of that."
Before the vigil, members of Karen’s class handed out small candles, the flame protected by a wax-paper cup, and purple ribbon pins signifying domestic violence. The women put together the candles and ribbons Thursday afternoon.
People of all ages gathered at the vigil, which lasted about 25 minutes. Some came early to meet with friends. Others lingered afterward to look at pictures of the family and sign the condolence book, which will be available at the center's front desk to sign for the next few days.
Among the attendees were Tammy Bush and Rockie Alden. Karen was the pair’s personal trainer at the center. Bush said, “(Karen) so obviously made an effort to choose joy," an attitude Alden said was “inspiring.”
Anita McGill said she plans to carry on with the principles of nutrition and exercise Karen taught in her boot camp class.
Standing with McGill, holding a large plastic storage bin to collect leftover candles, was Chimene Schwach who said Karen was “a strong woman who was doing everything she could to move her life forward.”
Jeffrey Clark said he didn’t know Karen personally but wanted to attend the vigil to say goodbye. He, too, emphasized that Karen was always seen smiling.
“Those pictures up there break my heart, with her and her daughter,” he said. “It’s just a senseless act.”
Karen was most admired for her ever-present joy and positive attitude. It was an attitude that "said yes to life" and was "as buoyant as the bounce in her ponytail," Ryan said.