By Matt Nagle
Every now and then, as we make our way through life’s journey, we come upon people who stand out from the crowd for all the right reasons. In Tacoma, one of these people was Karen Vialle. Karen, 76, passed away on Sunday, July 21 after more than a year of battling lung cancer. Her loss is being felt across the city, as she touched the lives of so many during her years of being an engaged citizen and trailblazer for women, passionate in her convictions and steadfast in her belief in education for youth to be the leaders of tomorrow’s generations.
“We have a responsibility to provide our children with an excellent educational experience in a safe and productive learning environment,” she once said, and she walked her talk in this matter and all that she did throughout her life.
A Tacoma native and lifelong resident, Karen’s roots here were deeply embedded, as she descended from area pioneers. A graduate of Wilson High School (class of 1961), she earned two degrees from the University of Puget Sound and holds advanced degrees from Washington State University.
In everything she did, Karen brought experience, heart and sometimes a fierce determination that didn’t always sit well with others but earned her high respect whether in governance, community service or education. As outlined in her bio at the Tacoma Public Schools website, she served as a Tacoma City Council member for two years and then as mayor of Tacoma from 1990 to 1994, where she played a major role in the Foss Waterway cleanup, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians land claims settlement, Union Station renovation and the development of the University of Washington-Tacoma. She worked in state government for five years, including service as assistant director of the Office of Financial Management under then-Gov. Dan Evans.
As the first woman in Tacoma to hold the mayor’s position, she opened doors of opportunity for those who came after her, such as former mayor Marilyn Strickland and current mayor Victoria Woodards, both of whom established their own legacy as African-American and female mayors.
Karen served in a variety of Tacoma non-profit organizations, including the PTAs where her own children attended school.
She taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Washington and as an assistant and adjunct professor at the University of Puget Sound. Prior to joining the school board, she spent 10 years as a substitute teacher in Tacoma Public Schools.
Karen was first elected to the Tacoma Public Schools Board of Directors in 2011 and was reelected in 2017. When Tacoma Public Schools reached a record graduation rate this year, it was indeed a proud moment for her as school board president and dedicated educator. But in her true style, she gave credit to everyone involved. “First of all, I want to recognize the community support without which these amazing results would not have been possible,” she said at the time. “If you look at where we were in 2011, just more than 61 percent, and how far we’ve come, it has been that community support plus pure hard work by our teachers, principals, counselors, paras, staff – everyone in the organization – and, of course, our students.”
The following is a heartfelt message to the community from the Tacoma School Board that serves as a beautiful tribute to a woman who will be always noted in the annals of Tacoma history.
We will miss you: Board President Karen Vialle leaves a lasting legacy in Tacoma
The Tacoma School Board was saddened to learn of the passing of our colleague Karen Vialle over the weekend.
“Karen’s love of family, the City of Tacoma, and the students and families in the Tacoma School District was undeniable,” said School Board Vice President Scott Heinze. “Her historical perspective of Tacoma and political acumen were invaluable. The Tacoma School District is better today because of her leadership and service to the Board.”
Karen Vialle stepped into her role as an elected member of the Tacoma School Board with a career full of milestones and achievements. Most notably, to historians, the first woman mayor of Tacoma.
But if you really wanted to see her light up? Watch her at graduation ceremonies. She worked for years as a substitute teacher, spending much of the time at Sheridan and Lister elementary schools. When one of “my kids,” as she called them, had grown up and walked up to her on that graduation stage, she would greet them by name with a big smile and get a big hug and a “thank you” in return.
Often, Karen would say how much she deeply loved being part of such a forward-thinking school board and high-performing school district for nearly eight years. She could recount the numerous honors won by the district, the board and leadership by valuing every student, initiating innovative programs and policies and setting high expectations for students. In particular, she advocated for the policy of automatically enrolling all high school students in advanced courses. Giving all students the opportunities to achieve, excel and build a college-bound mindset is what equity is all about, she would say.
She’d go to bat for Tacoma Public Schools with her feisty, protective nature whenever someone would badmouth her school district or its people.
Karen liked to remind you, always, that she graduated from Wilson High School as a proud Ram. She became a great advocate for rebuilding deteriorating schools so all students, no matter what neighborhood they lived in, would have the best possible, innovative learning environments. She served as a School Board representative on multiple teams that chose architects and contractors for our school construction projects. She took pride in rebuilding the schools in her West End area – Geiger Montessori, Wilson and the future new Hunt Middle School.
For many Tacoma newcomers and youngsters, Karen’s service as a city councilwoman and mayor in the late 1980s and early 1990s may seem like ancient history. Look around, however, and many of the things we cherish in our city have Karen’s fingerprints on them. She played a major role in the Foss Waterway cleanup from polluted industrial wasteland so it could become a vibrant waterfront attraction. She helped settle historic land claims by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians so the tribe, the Port of Tacoma and the region would have certainty around future growth. She helped launch the renovation of the derelict Union Station into a federal courthouse, and she backed the origin of the University of Washington Tacoma.
With her husband, Marvin, Karen raised three children and got to enjoy eight grandchildren. We share in the grief and the loss of her passing on Sunday, July 21. At the same time, we take great joy in acknowledging that Tacoma Public Schools and the 30,000 children we serve owe much of our upward trajectory and bright future to the indomitable spirit and dedication of Karen Vialle.
Rest in peace, Karen, knowing your legacy will live on.
The family is working to arrange a memorial service to honor Karen’s life, and we will share details when available.