The Way We Were: Karen Buskirk

The Way We Were: Karen Buskirk
Leonard ‘Buz’, Karen, Celena, Trent, May 1978

Some people give selflessly, not expecting any reward or return. They give because they believe that giving back is the only way to truly effect positive change. Karen Buskirk is one such person. “You can gripe and complain all you want, but if you don’t give back to make the community better, then you’re not making a city better, a city stronger,” she said.

Karen Buskirk is a native of Jacksonville. She was born on February 24, 1948 at St. Luke’s Hospital as Karen Moore. She grew up on Peachtree Circle North near San Marco as the youngest of three. She has a sister living in Orange Park. Their brother is deceased.

Buskirk went to Hendricks Avenue Elementary School and was a member of the Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church recreation program. “Every day of the week I was down there,” she said. She and her friends would have bike races to see who could get there fastest to jump on the trampoline and play basketball on the court. “I was very athletic, always outside, riding my bike, just playing in the neighborhood,” she said.

Karen in Little League uniform in front yard  of Peachtree Circle North home
Karen in Little League uniform in front yard of Peachtree Circle North home

In 1960, Buskirk became the first girl ever to play Little League in Jacksonville. She was the only girl on the boys’ team, for there were no teams for girls in the community at that time. She rode down to Hendricks Avenue, just a few blocks from her house, and ball teams were gathering. She didn’t think about boys or girls. She just wanted to play. “I’ve always been very determined,” she said.

She was included on a team for the right field position. “Nobody knew I was girl,” she said. She wasn’t yet a teen, hadn’t yet developed, wore short hair and a cap. The following year, softball teams for girls began. Buskirk had started a trend. Her courage had given girls a gift.

After Hendricks, Buskirk went on to DuPont Junior High. In 1966, she was a member of the first graduating class of Wolfson High School, which was established when the district merged DuPont students with Landon students to accommodate the growing Southside population. “It was exciting,” Buskirk said of the opportunity to meet new friends with whom she hadn’t gone to junior high. The student body voted her Most Athletic.

Buskirk graduated with a two-year degree from Florida Junior College, which today is known as Florida State College at Jacksonville. She then transferred to Florida State University but didn’t stay long. While she’d been a student there, struggling with money and majors, Buskirk worked part time at Pick ‘n Save. A customer, who happened to be a military recruiter, came through her line and told her, “You know, you would be a great recruit for the Air Force.” So, she signed up!

She returned to Jacksonville from Tallahassee to get her car and then drove to Duluth, Minnesota where she was stationed. It was her first time crossing state lines out of Florida, aside from the few times she had traveled with her softball team for tournaments. Buskirk, a Florida girl through and through, asked the Minnesota natives in mid-July when summer would be coming. She was told, “We had it yesterday.” It was obvious to them by more than just her southern accent that Buskirk was an outsider.

She stayed in the Air Force only 16 months. During that time, she met and married Leonard Buskirk, a retiring tech sergeant from a small town in Wisconsin. Duluth offered few employment opportunities for the former sergeant, so he insisted that they move to his wife’s hometown, Jacksonville, though he’d never been to Florida.

The couple bought a house on Scotty Drive in the Greenfield Manor area and had two children, Trent and Celena, before purchasing a brand-new home on Mandarin Point Lane in Mandarin in 1974. Buskirk still lives there today.

Married with two children, Buskirk used the GI Bill to finish her degree at the University of North Florida. She wanted a career that afforded summers off with Trent and Celena, and she’s always had a love for kids; so, she earned her degree in elementary education.

February 1980, Buskirk family in Scotty Drive home
February 1980, Buskirk family in Scotty Drive home

When their children were only 8 and 11 years old, Buskirk’s husband was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. He passed on five years later. Buskirk was left a  widowed mother of two teenagers. “When you have children, you can do either one of two things. You can wallow in the way that life should have been, or you can go and be with your children,” Buskirk said. She chose the latter and saw to it that both of hers went through advanced schooling. Her son earned scholarships and pursued a PhD at Arizona State University. Her daughter graduated from Mandarin High as Most Athletic, having inherited her mom’s physical agility, and earned a scholarship to the University of North Florida where she studied health sciences.

Karen Buskirk, teacher at Spring Park Elementary, January 1995
Karen Buskirk, teacher at Spring Park Elementary, January 1995

It was not only her own children whom Buskirk invested in educating. In January 2015, she retired from a 35-year career in the Duval County school district, teaching first grade and Title 1 reading students. She taught at North Shore, Spring Park, and Lake Forest Elementary Schools.

Buskirk, a believer in changing a by giving back to it, had spent approximately $10,000 of her own money for resources to help her students learn. She refused to pass over the children who were struggling. “I’m a self-motivator. If I see something that needs to be done, I do it,” she said. And her efforts did not go unnoticed. Buskirk still recalls a visit from Nicholas, one of her many former students, letting her know he was doing well as a junior at Florida State.

While working, Buskirk saw too many kids sitting down and playing video games. She wanted to get them out and active. So, upon her retirement, Buskirk bought a bicycle for each of the 20 students in her class. “I have a deep passion for children because they can’t help a lot of the situations they’re in,” she said.

First, Buskirk called each one’s parents for approval. Then, she contacted Trek Bicycle Shop in Jacksonville Beach to arrange the mass purchase of quality equipment. She insisted on no training wheels. “I believe in giving kids confidence,” she said. Jack Tomassetti, salesman at the shop, arranged to have a local policeman offer a traffic course for the class on a Saturday morning. “Every one of those kids loved those bikes. Some of them had never even been on a bike before, and they just thoroughly enjoyed it,” Buskirk said. Moved by Buskirk’s generosity, Tomassetti decided to donate a helmet to each child.

Spring Park Elementary, 1st grade class, April 1994
Spring Park Elementary, 1st grade class, April 1994

To ensure that the bicycles were used only as intended, for the enjoyment and freedom of her students, Buskirk gave a list to the bike shop of every parent’s name and had each one sign an agreement that nothing could be refunded in exchange for money to be used for something else. She was that protective of the children’s interests. “God’s given me a lot of wisdom over the years, and I’m able to perceive and see things that people might do,” she said.

After her retirement, Buskirk volunteered for a time as a tutor at a community center. She’s devoted her Fridays to DESC, a downtown food pantry and clothing closet. She also acted as guardian ad litem for a 3-year-old girl and would like to continue in that role once coronavirus is no longer a threat.

It’s not only to her family, her students, and her community that Buskirk gives, but also to out-of-town strangers. She recounted a plane ride back to Florida from visiting her son out of state. She met a woman whose connecting flight would be delayed extensively, deeming it necessary for the lady to spend a day-and-a-half alone in Jacksonville, never having been here before. “I reached in my pocket and gave her a 50-dollar bill,” Buskirk said. “Have a good time while you’re in Jacksonville,” she told the woman. “I give because God has blessed me with the means to give,” she said.

May 1988 with son Trent and daughter Celena in  front of their Mandarin home
May 1988 with son Trent and daughter Celena in front of their Mandarin home

“I think Jacksonville’s a great city! It really is a very welcoming city. And I think that there are a lot of people in Jacksonville who care about all segments, whether it’s children, whether it’s the elderly, whether it’s the disabled, whether it’s the veterans,” Buskirk said. And though her son is now raising two daughters in Ohio, and her daughter is raising one in Montana, Buskirk still says of Jacksonville, “It’s a city to call home.”

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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