Can you imagine what it might have been like to live in the 1880s? Most of us might have a difficult time conjuring up an image of walking to a one-room schoolhouse without electricity or running water. But thanks to Karen Roth and the Edgar J. Bundy Memorial School, generations of Ottawa children have learned about what life was like back then. And, in the process, learned a lesson or two about life in general.
A Docent on
Our Shared Past.
Karen has always been interested in the rich history of the area. “History's always been, kind of, what I like,” she states. “Books and history.” As a child, she would loan her books to neighborhood children, going so far as to paste pockets with check-out cards inside the covers and labels on the spines, so as to emulate actual library books.
So, it seems almost predetermined that she would make a career as a librarian, helming the library at Lincoln School. While at Lincoln, her enthusiasm for history led her to develop an enrichment program called “Thinkin’ About Lincoln”, in which students would learn about the life and legacy of our 16th president. Her writing was featured in a book about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that was compiled by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Foundation, and in 2009 she won a History Channel “Think About Lincoln” lesson contest.
So, when she retired in 2018, she was the natural choice to take over as docent at the Little Red Schoolhouse, also known as the Edgar J. Bundy Memorial School. Built in 1855 and originally located near Ransom, IL, the building housed the school and hosted community events until 1932. It was acquired by OES in 1991, and opened to staff and students in 1994. It has been restored and outfitted to look as it did in the 1880s, with period desks and bookcases, a piano, kerosene lamps, and even a three-seater outhouse.
With her encyclopedic knowledge of area history, and natural enthusiasm for sharing that knowledge, Karen makes the past come to life for the students that visit. “I just try to get through to them what life was like in 1885,” she says. When the children are visiting, they pretend as if they are actually in 1885, and that includes doing without things like electricity and running water. “The thing that shocks the kids is when we say there are no phones,” she laughs. They participate in activities that their 19th-century forerunners would have, like spelling bees and arithmetic lessons using beans to solve problems. Penmanship is practiced on slates, butter is made in canning jars, and in the spring, the students study wildflowers. At Christmas time, second- and third-graders learn about how people celebrated the holiday, making ornaments, singing carols, hearing stories and making charitable donations to those in need. “The history just intrigues me, and it’s so much fun to share that with the kids and have them get excited about something,” she enthuses.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given her affinity for books and history, Karen is a prolific writer. She is working on a couple of books, including a compilation of 100 of her favorite columns that she has written over the last 21 years for the Times newspaper as part of The Write Team. “It’s very therapeutic,” she says of the work. In fact, when her first grandson tragically died as a result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, she turned to writing to help herself deal with her grief. “Writing ended up being very therapeutic for me. And a lot of it, I didn’t show to anybody, because it was just stuff I had to say and stuff I needed to get out in some way.” She wrote in the newspaper about her experience, and she recalls that people’s responses to the columns were often along the lines of, “Oh my gosh, I thought I was the only one who felt that way.” She felt gratified to learn that writing about her experience was therapeutic for others as well. She strives to be relatable in her writing, and takes pleasure in connecting with others through her words. She understands that, although we all have differences, “We’re all a lot more alike than we are different.”
With her pen, her knowledge, and her drive to make the world better, Karen already wields more power than she is perhaps aware. But, if she were given the unlimited power of a magic wand, she would use it to do more of what she does on a regular basis – touch people’s lives. “I would just like to have everybody be able to just get along with each other, work hard, and take care of each other. That’s what we need to do,” she says. In short, she would use that boundless magical power to make a difference for the people of her community, especially the children. Her hope for the children of Ottawa, the goal she strives for, is that they will come to realize no magic wand is really necessary to affect real change. “I just want them to appreciate what we have and where we came from,” she muses. And she wants them to know that, as individuals, they can make a difference. “Kids walked to this school barefoot…and they had barely any books or supplies, but…they went on to do great things,” she says. Karen thinks that what children sometimes need most of all is someone that believes in them, and Karen Roth does believe – in all of them.