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Missing Karen

by Cathy Ritchie retired from the Dallas Public Library in 2019 after 19 years in public service and collection development. She now lives in Urbana, Illinois. on December 20, 2021

Karen Blumenthal (1959-2020) was a journalist, a teacher, a historian, a biographer, a master needle-pointer, a cookie-maker, a proud Texas native, a much-loved wife and mother, an enthusiastic Dallas sports fan, a passionate public library supporter, a tireless fund-raiser, and a dedicated civic volunteer. She was also my friend and mentor during many of my own years in Dallas, and one of the best nonfiction writers I will ever experience.

In May 2020, at my new home in Urbana, Illinois, I received word of her sudden death in Dallas from a heart attack: “my blood ran cold” was no longer a fanciful phrase to me. To lose such a vital comrade from my life, and at age 61 to boot, was unfathomable, and still is.  All I can do now is to hold her memory close, and relish the amazing legacy she left behind, including outstanding nonfiction written ostensibly for teenagers but easily embraced by adults as well.

Blumenthal was born and raised in Dallas, studied journalism at Duke University, and later earned an MBA at Southern Methodist University. During her 25 years with the Wall Street Journal, she became its Dallas bureau chief and personal finance columnist, also serving at one point as the Dallas Morning News’s business editor. But her tides would eventually turn, launching my gifted communicator friend in a new direction.

Noticing a lack of appealing nonfiction books for teenage readers like her own daughters, Blumenthal decided to tackle this gap herself with her characteristic creativity and determination. She would eventually write nine books on pivotal moments and exceptional people in American history, beginning in 2002 with Six Days In October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929 (Atheneum). 2005 saw her Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX (Atheneum). “Story” was such a fitting word in that latter title, as her approach to history was indeed akin to storytelling, highlighting important individuals and concrete events, while explaining more complex yet necessary concepts with total respect for her readers’ intelligence.

She continued to examine American moments leading to massive societal change, as chronicled in Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine and the Lawless Years of Prohibition (Square Fish, 2014) and Tommy: The Gun That Changed America (Roaring Brook Press, 2015). 

In these works, Blumenthal never just states hard facts and moves on, and never shies away from including cogent analysis of events’ underlying ramifications, such as the rise of organized crime and gun control, respectively. She frames what in other hands could become a one-sided argument in as broad, concise, and balanced a way as possible. In these two books, especially, I think she succeeds superbly; I always take away new insights upon re-reading them.

But she also believed that history was shaped by unique individuals influencing events for good and sometimes not. The final decade of her life witnessed her new focus on biography. Since biographies/memoirs are my #1 favorite genre, I was always delighted to meet her “chosen people,” including Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different (Square Fish) in 2012; Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History (Feiwel & Friends) in 2016; and, in a nod to Karen’s Texas roots, Bonnie and Clyde: Making of a Legend (Viking) in 2018.

No glossing over bad celebrity behavior for this author: her subjects are shared with readers in both their glory and infamy. In addition, her narratives are always enlivened by well-chosen illustrations, sidebars, and other tools facilitating a smooth journey through her people’s lives.

Blumenthal’s final book, appearing in early 2020 shortly before her death, may be her finest work of all, or at least in my opinion, as she tackles one of the most volatile issues of our time. Her Jane Against The World: Roe v Wade and The Fight For Reproductive Rights (Roaring Brook Press) is a masterful examination of the abortion debate from early days to the Trump era, highlighting the many personalities and setbacks involved in both sides’ struggles to see justice done. I have learned so much from my multiple readings of this book; in light of more recent Texas abortion access developments, I regret we won’t have a chance to see her updated edition.

All of Blumenthal’s nonfiction works are “good for research,” as she provides copious bibliographies, endnotes, and contact information for her sources. But simply experiencing her books for the sheer love of a true-to-life story is worth the effort as well. Her titles appeal to readers with both scholarly and casual reading motives, as evidenced by the number of awards and “best of the year” lists for which she was frequently cited. I was always eager to know what her next book would be. She often devoted years to researching her projects, but I never minded the wait.

That’s a brief look at Karen Blumenthal the author. But we ignore Karen Blumenthal the activist at our peril.

Libraries truly had no better friend. As both a researcher and everyday patron, she actively supported all facets of the Dallas Public Library (DPL) system, including the needs and concerns of its staff. Blumenthal served as President of the Friends of the Dallas Public Library for two years, and was also a member of the city’s Municipal Library Board. In times of fiscal crisis (of which there were several during our shared time as Dallas residents), Her offers of assistance and support to library administration were automatic. Her spirited and laser-focused campaign a decade ago to convince the Dallas City Council to increase DPL funding received extensive local coverage and met with eventual success.

But she never let the broad picture overshadow the importance of libraries within her own Dallas backyard. Her small neighborhood branch, the Forest Green Library, had long been in need of expansion and technological upgrading, and Blumenthal exercised her unflagging persuasive talents in raising funds for just that purpose. Sadly, she wasn’t there for the September 2021 opening of the gloriously renovated so-called “Library That Karen Helped Build,” but she is nonetheless posthumously honored at that locale. The building’s state-of-the-art auditorium officially bears her name in gratitude and remembrance, only one of several civic honors bestowed upon her since her death.

An outstanding author, a library humanitarian, and a generous friend: Karen Blumenthal graced my life in all those capacities, and I take great comfort in knowing that she will not be forgotten any time soon. The sense of personal loss in my heart will never disappear, but the legacies she left me, her family and colleagues, her beloved hometown, and the publishing world are as immutable as the bricks, mortar, and materials sustaining the Dallas libraries she cherished and fought for so passionately.  She is missed.