Monday, November 7, 2011

Karen Krebsbach

Lately, I've been thinking about the people who influence our lives. The big ones, we can usually tick off. Mom and/or dad is on most lists. A teacher who got through to us in some fundamental way. A mentor who questioned something we took on faith, and made us rethink our view of the world. But lately, the people who have been in my mind are the people whose contributions were small, but had large ripples; people whose names I might not remember, who are just in my head as a snapshot or a voice.

There's the disheveled editor who seemed to be overwhelmingly disorganized, snapping my head back one day by refusing to file my story until I had added up and analyzed the numbers. He was right – looking at the numbers led me to realize there was something amiss, and I called back and asked more questions. In the theatre industry in Chicago – which I covered for 20 years – I am known for checking and rechecking the numbers, and often finding mistakes.

There are the two women who took me under their wing when I was working tech for a big show once. I started out working in lighting, and the board operator (who was in charge of the crew) tried to kiss me, then was verbally abusive for a sadly memorable week after I rebuffed him. These women, whom I can most accurately and lovingly describe as “broads” (of the kind that you have to have lived in Las Vegas to really know), got me transferred out of the light crew and onto the stage crew and then literally acted as a barrier to the asshole when he put up a fuss. I don't know their names. I was 20. They were in their 40s or 50s. If they are still alive, I'm sure they don't remember me. But the example they showed me of how strong women take care of each other has stayed with me. I would totally act as a barrier in a similar situation.

Then there's Karen Krebsbach. I remember her name partly because I thought it was cool, and partly because there's a Krebsbach family in Garrison Keillor's “Lake Wobegon.” And she was from the midwest; Wisconsin or Minnesota, I can't remember.

Karen was an editor at the first daily I worked at. I did obits, and tried to break into writing longer features. I tackled education funding in Massachusetts. I wrote about eminent domain, and how some homeowners were being screwed by the government in the service of a national park. Other editors there thought I was wasting my time. One even took a quote from a state senator out of one of my pieces on education funding. The senator posited, in a face to face interview, that the model should be changed from property taxes to sales taxes – a radical idea in the '80s, but an intuitive one in an area just west of Boston where property tax growth was fixed, but the high tech industry was just taking hold.

The editor told me the senator hadn't actually introduced legislation, so the quote shouldn't be in the piece.

But Karen... stayed with me. She was nice. She was smart. She hung around after hours to go over my longer pieces and help me shape them. Writing about larger issues is a bit like sculpting. Karen was a great sculptor, and she helped me see how to craft and sculpt, too.

After I left that job and got an internship at the Boston Globe sports department, I found to my surprise and delight that Karen was working in the Globe's business section. We didn't have coffee or anything. But we were happy to see each other, talked about what we were working on. She wasn't that much older than me, but she encouraged me to dream – to go after what I wanted. She was the first person who actively told me that I was a good writer. For her, it seemed a given. I didn't let on how much I appreciated the assumptiveness of her opinion. I didn't let on a lot in those days.

But in the years since, whether I realized it or not, I would hear Karen's voice as I was writing. It could have been something as simple as “be consistent with your references” or as complicated as “Who's voice are you telling this with?” Words and phrases and ideas would come through my head as if they were mine – which, of course, they were – and I'd always have this vague pull to the original discussion where I learned them.

We didn't spend much time together at all. But I remember Karen Krebsbach. And I appreciate the influence she had on my life.

So I thought I'd get in touch with her. Hell, you can find anybody these days, especially someone who works in a public medium like journalism. I wanted to thank her. I wanted her to know that she had left a mark in someone she only knew fleetingly.

So I Googled her. And this is what I found:

“Karen Krebsbach, Former Executive Editor at U.S. Banker, Dies at 52”

The headline is from American Banker, published on July 19, 2010. It was not the first source I saw, but it was the most comprehensive. She had moved on from when I knew her to live in New York and cover investment and international business. She managed a number of publications that won awards. She was widely recognized for an insightful column called “Inside Track.” She was successful.

That didn't surprise me.

She had breast cancer. For some reason, that floored me. She died way too young. She died before it even occurred to me to thank her. I sat at my computer and cried.

I wish I could end with some big admonishment about taking stock of the people in your life before it's too late. But we know that already, and we largely do – for the people who are actually IN our lives. But the people who influence us on the margins, who help shape us in very small but sometimes deeply profound ways – we don't really even know who they are. We just don't. I remember because I'm a writer. I'm a storyteller. Those kinds of memories and stories come more easily – anything could be fodder.

I'm glad I knew Karen Krebsbach. I'm glad she had an influence on my work. I'm sorry that it never occurred to me to thank her sooner. But, when I think about it, I realize I have been thanking her for 20+ years. I've been passing her advice along, and adding my own to it, helping people shape their own work. That's how we make the world a better place. She knew that. And she did.


  1. Now I'm gonna have to go find Mr. Layloff. Third grade teacher, Washington Grade School, Hammond IN who took lots and lots of time with me until I totally understood fractions. I'll never forget his kindness and biting humor.

  2. And precisely why we can thank you too, Carrie.

  3. And just when I thought I was home free and untouched by your story... you got me. Here is to all of our Karen Krebsbach inspirations.