A Smile and a Song | Newberry

A Smile and a Song

I should like, if possible, to keep this column down to one obituary per decade, but people are going to have to cooperate.

Many years ago, the Book Fair had a volunteer who flew from South Carolina every year to work here. She was a scrappy one, famous for glaring at book dealers who dared approach the Collectibles. She’d been a book dealer herself, and didn’t trust ‘em. She was large and imposing, and her glare was a serious thing. She could not, however, face a diagnosis of lung cancer, and gave up the fight early on, on the eve, in fact, of one of the Newberry Library volunteer luncheons.

At that luncheon, Karen Skubish, the Newberry’s Events Director, Mistress of Ceremonies, and Volunteer Coordinator, announced the death of our veteran with the words, “A little bird has flown away from us.” I was touched, if a bit boggled at the tought of this particular volunteer as a little bird.

Well, a little bird has flown from us, friends, because Karen Skubish, after an unbelievable 43 years at the Newberry Library, lost her own struggle with cancer this week. She came to the Newberry fresh from grad school and did a bit of everything, from supervising security to playing the harp at Newberry weddings. Her current position, as Major General of the Events Department, started when Tennessee Williams was coming for a visit and the President of the Newberry asked her to “put something together”. She did it so well that she was asked to do it again, and then another time, and then deal with someone who wanted to get married at the Newberry. And eventually an entire Events Department came into existence.

The department was her passion, and is her monument. She used to regret that she couldn’t spend more time practicing the harp (she played professionally all over northern Illinois and did a brief tour of southern France as well) but there was always something interesting to take care of at the Newberry. Even as the cancer worsened, she would fight her way to the library to put up tulle or provide harp music. (Did I mention the bride who asked whether Karen could play Metallica on the harp for the reception? She could. She did.) It was work she needed, and wanted, to do. The best of weddings can be hectic, the worst could be epic. But they were seldom dull.

Action energized Karen. Once, when she moved, she complained about all the realtors who insisted on showing her apartments that had lovely lake views. She wanted a view of the city, where people were doing things. “The lake does the same things over and over,” she said. “That’s dull.”

So wherever she’s flown off to, I hope they have something for her to do. (I understand they have harps aplenty.) And a balcony overlooking Earth 

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