Above all, Karen Chandler looked for the good in everything and everyone.
"She was passionate about really just making a difference," said Ron Schmidt, a friend and Columbia Parks and Recreation CARE program supervisor.
A longtime employee of the city Parks and Recreation Department, Chandler enjoyed "knowing that she made things better than they were before she got there and just wanting to fix situations or make things better,” Schmidt said.
Karen Lee Chandler passed away Tuesday, Sept. 1, at age 55 after a long battle with cancer. Visitation and a memorial service will be held Wednesday, Sept. 9, at Memorial Funeral Home.
Born and raised in Columbia, Chandler put her all into giving back to the community that did so much for her.
As the superintendent of Recreation and Community Programs, Chandler worked at Columbia Parks and Rec for nearly 28 years. She planned annual community events like the Heritage Festival, Fire in the Sky and First Night.
Schmidt grew up down the street from Chandler. He recalls attending school with her every year, from Russell Boulevard Elementary School to their graduations from MU with degrees in parks and recreation.
Illustrating what made Chandler so special, Schmidt described her as a very supportive person who always went out on a limb for her friends.
“I spent my whole life wanting to work for [Columbia] Parks and Rec, and seven or eight years ago [Karen] hired me," Schmidt said. "I’ll always appreciate that — she hired me to pretty much my dream job and my dream department, and I definitely owe that all to her.”
Erika Coffman, recreation services manager for Columbia Parks and Rec, remembers the passion Chandler put into everything she did.
"She had the ability to put on events of all sizes for our community, whether it was an event for 25 to 50 people or even thousands that attended the Heritage Festival and Fire In the Sky," Coffman said.
She emphasized that attendees never knew how much effort it took to put on an event because Chandler did her job so seamlessly.
"Karen had great organizational skills and always kept everything running so smoothly," Coffman said. "She made sure all details were in place, and she always met our vendors’ and participants’ needs, as well as taking care of the staff and the volunteers that helped her plan the events.”
No matter how hard things got, Chandler always took pride in serving her community.
“She was a true Columbian," Coffman said. "She loved her hometown.”
The department's employees recently participated in an activity about raising each other up, Parks and Recreation Director Mike Griggs said. The responses about Chandler were especially approprpiate:
- "Strong woman"
- "Amazed by her strength and resilience"
- "No matter what life throws at her, she always finds a way to prevail"
- "The most supportive supervisor I've ever had"
- "Experienced leader"
- "Dedicated to our department"
- "A caring and understanding person who builds her employees up"
Coffman, who supervised Chandler for over 11 years, echoed those sentiments.
"Karen cared deeply for the staff that she supervised," Coffman said. "She was engaged in their lives outside of work and wanted to make sure that they found a way to have a good work-life balance."
Chandler was known for consistently putting others first, and she lived up to that reputation.
"She volunteered for activities at [her son] Blake's school," Coffman said. "She attended as many of his school and athletic events that she could. She was a very active parent."
Tammy Miller, marketing specialist for Columbia Parks and Rec, characterized Chandler as "one of the most positive people that you would meet," and a woman who deeply cared about her job.
Griggs recalls how Chandler was able to provide people with lifelong memories and experiences.
"All these families, you know, 30,000 people come down for Fourth of July, and these are all memories created largely by the event that Karen supervises," Griggs said. "That really is something that I think means a lot to people, especially to Karen and her family.”
Griggs also graduated from MU alongside Chandler and knew her for over 30 years.
He fondly remembers an outdoor college consortium trip with Chandler and other students. Griggs and Chandler were paired together to memorize the names of everyone else on the trip.
Although a small moment, Griggs said it was one that he and Chandler always remembered.
"Karen and I were going, 'this is going to be impossible!'" Griggs said. "There [were] twins down there, and we couldn't even tell them apart, much less try to figure out all these other names. But we finally struggled through it."
The activity brought Griggs and Chandler closer together, and he calls it "a good exercise in team building."
Chandler's friends said they will always remember the joy she brought to their lives.
"Karen fought hard, but she always looked for ways to find light, even in her darkest moments," Coffman said.