The TransForm team was shocked and saddened to hear of the unexpected death of Karen Kunze on November 1, 2016. Karen served as the Finance Director for TransForm from 2007 to 2012. We asked our former communications director, Marta Lindsey, to share her memories of Karen.
When I recently read about several thousand people linking hands around the entire circumference of Lake Merritt as an expression of love and acceptance for all people in wake of the presidential election, I thought of Karen Kunze. Had Karen not recently passed away, I believe she would have been standing at the water’s edge.
Karen lived right next to Lake Merritt. She loved it for its beauty at all times of day. She loved seeing the racing boats on it, which reminded her of earlier years when she had been a rower with the Marin Rowing Association. Most of all, she loved the people who walked around it from every ethnicity and walk of life, who seemed to share a unique, inspiring sense of connectedness.
Karen’s career was varied, but the common thread was her commitment to helping all people. This was true at Bonita House, where she worked for over ten years helping get low-income people with serious psychiatric and substance abuse disorders the support and shelter they needed. Earlier in her career, she served as the Mayor of Larkspur, on the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and on the board of directors of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District. She even had a bridge named after her: the Kunze Memorial Pedestrian Bicycle Bridge, which connects the ferry terminal in Larkspur to the Larkspur Landing shopping center.
I became good friends with Karen at TransForm, where she was the finance director for five years and an essential leader during a time of significant growth for the organization. In talking with others who worked closely with Karen during those years, the same qualities kept coming up: integrity, intelligence, strength, patience, and warmth. Karen called herself “the posterchild for the importance of TransForm’s work,” as problems with her vision meant that eventually, public transportation and walking became Karen’s only way to get around. She believed strongly in there being more places where people of all incomes could live and thrive without driving a car, as she was able to do in Oakland.
Karen was an inspiration to those who knew her for many reasons, but especially because of her path over the past few years. At a time when many would have considered retiring, Karen decided to go back to school. She had always been intrigued by law and decided to become a paralegal. She aced the paralegal program and quickly became sought after for her smarts, work ethic, and commitment to helping people. At the time of her passing, Karen was working for the State of California’s Office of the Attorney General in San Francisco, investigating prison issues. She absolutely loved it, and lit up when talking about her new career.
I will think of Karen each time I cross the Golden Gate Bridge, which she got to go to the top of once, for what she described as the greatest view of her life. I will think of Karen when I go to the eastern Sierra because of her family’s incredible history in the Owens Valley water wars (they’re in the book, Cadillac Desert!). I will think of Karen when I enjoy a really good chocolate bar, of which I shared many with her at TransForm. Most of all, I will think of Karen when I stand by a water’s edge and remember how steadfastly she helped others throughout her life.