Karen Kunkel: USOEC director, pro baseball player


MARQUETTE — Negaunee native Karen Violetta Kunkel — a trailblazer in women’s sports who was a vital force in bringing U.S. Olympic training to the Upper Peninsula — passed away recently. She was 83.

Kunkel was a professional athlete, a professor, an administrator, a movie adviser, a motivational speaker and a community volunteer. She was a wife, mother and grandmother who survived breast cancer. She was an on-set adviser to the 1992 film “A League of Their Own” as well as a participant in professional women’s baseball in the 1950s.

And she was a lifelong dynamo.

Tom Peters, who served for many years as assistant to the president at Northern Michigan University, said that Kunkel deserved much of the credit for the arrival of Olympic athletes to this area. He served with her on the committee that worked hard to get Olympic programs here.

“I almost don’t know where to begin to talk about Karen,” Peters said. “I remember when Karen came to Northern, she was teaching health. She and Barb Patrick were strong advocates for women’s programs. Karen was interested in getting the Olympic athletes here and from day one of her time at NMU, she worked on that.”

To secure the designation, Kunkel, Peters and others on the committee traveled to a number of cities to pitch NMU as a United States Olympic training site.

“Karen and I and others stressed the importance of tying the educational aspects into the training for these athletes,” Peters said.

They brought then Gov. James Blanchard with them for a crucial meeting in Colorado in the 1980s, along with the commanding general of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

“The next morning, we were designated as an Olympic training site,” Peters said. “The folks in Colorado were impressed by the governor and the general, but Karen was the real mover. She worked with the national governing bodies of many sports to get their athletes to come to Marquette. She emphasized the whole concept of access to education for Olympic athletes.

“And we did have athletes who trained here who graduated from NMU and some of the younger ones who graduated from Marquette (Senior) High School. The concept worked fine.”

Peters said while Kunkel was highly competitive, she was also easy to get along with.

“She was a good person, very loyal and supportive,” he said. “Karen was a gem.”

In 2004, Kunkel visited Marquette from downstate Cadillac, where she and her husband, Jack, were living at the time so she could be part of the opening ceremonies of the Michigan Junior Softball Championship tournament that year. Kunkel said it meant a great deal to her to be included.

In an interview prior to that tournament, Kunkel said: “I am going to be really happy to be there. Marquette will have the chance to showcase some of the best young girls softball players in the state of Michigan. It will show how far women’s sports has come.”

Kunkel was part of the evolution of women’s sports her entire life. She played for the Marquette Indians, a team that won a state title in 1951. Later, she was on the Grand Rapids Chicks, a women’s professional baseball team. She was a skier, runner and a bowler.

Working for the betterment of others was another of her myriad achievements.

Kunkel earned her bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University, then went on to teach at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and at Northern Michigan University. Eventually, she taught at all levels of public and private education.

Serving in many capacities at NMU, Kunkel not only played a huge role in the establishment of what became the United States Olympic Education Center — serving as its administrator for a time — she also founded and directed the first Michigan Great Lakes State Games and served on the administrative committee that helped to build the Superior Dome in Marquette.

She was always a staunch supporter of women in sports, as she shared in her 2004 interview.

“I think the state of women’s sports is the best it has ever been in history,” Kunkel said. “Barb Patrick and I were around when Title IX was coming into play and we and a lot of other people worked hard to establish women’s sports.

“I think the years have proven … women are interested in sports, that women want to play sports and that women want to be part of a team,” she said. “It has been shown that girls participating in sports at a high school level have a reduced rate of teenage pregnancies.

“The opportunity to play is what they want and I think that is the best it has ever been,” Kunkel said. “I think the state of women in sports is tremendous.”

Renee Prusi is with The Mining Journal of Marquette