Posthumous doctorate still counts on her bucket list

May 03, 2016 / by / 5 Comments

The College of Doctoral Studies' first ever posthumous degree honors Karen Banks, a 30-year educator.

The College of Doctoral Studies’ first ever posthumous degree honors Karen Banks, a 30-year educator. Photo by Johnnie Banks 

By Jeannette Cruz
GCU News Bureau

Karen Susanne Banks wanted to do two things in life – succeed as an educator, and travel with her best friend and husband, Johnnie.

She accomplished both, with flying colors, but seven months before she reached another goal – graduating from Grand Canyon University with a doctorate in educational leadership – she died from cardiac arrest at age 58.

Knowing how much it meant to her, Johnnie decided to get her diploma and celebrate her accomplishment posthumously. For him, this was no easy matter. It meant driving more than 3,000 miles from New Jersey.

“As soon as I got her diploma in my hands, I could feel her love and her warmth all around me,” Johnnie said. “It was amazing.”

From the time he met her in high school, Johnnie could tell Karen was passionate about learning.


Johnnie Banks proudly shows off his wife’s diploma. Submitted photo

“She was a nerd and I was the football player with combat boots and untied shoelaces – but I was also the ‘nerd protector,’ as people called me,” he said.

It was also during that time that Johnnie taught Karen how to kiss, and in return, Karen taught Johnnie how to love. They married after college and had four children – John, Kenda, Jarrett and Jordan.

Karen also worked full-time as a curriculum supervisor for reading and language arts for a K-12 school district in New Jersey. She had obtained a bachelor’s from Princeton University in 1978,  a  master’s degree in English  from Rutgers University in 1997 and a master’s in writing arts from Rowan University in 2009.

It was Johnnie who talked Karen out of getting a third master’s degree and to instead push her education a step further.

“She had gotten so comfortable with the master’s programs and she was afraid, so at the point she said she was going for her doctorate’s I gave her nothing but support,” Johnnie said.


Karen and Johnnie Banks traveled across the United States for 12 years. Even in travel she was able to combine her love of writing, photography and wildlife. Photo by Johnnie Banks 

Johnnie made the cross country trek to Karen’s latest alma mater in the 40-foot diesel pusher that was their “private home,” the space that Karen filled with her writing, art and photography. It was here that Karen had completed her studies, the place in which Johnnie had proposed to her for the second time after she had lost her wedding band, and the vehicle they used to drop off their children for their first year of college. They only needed two more states to complete their United States travel — Alaska and Hawaii.

In one of her blogs that documented many of their outdoor adventures, Karen wrote about how they would arrive at their destinations, park their RV and then jump on their bicycles together. “I love the paths, the roads less traveled, that reveal thick stands of mountain laurel around every bend in the road,” she shared.

In another post she wrote, “When asked what I would have done if I had not been an educator, I always say a park ranger.  There’s still time!”

“Karen found that she got a lot of her best work done while we were out on our recreational vehicle,” John said. “As long as she had woods, or mountains or the ocean, she’d sit back and get her inspiration.”

After Johnnie picked up Karen’s diploma in April, he drove to Tucson, where she wanted to be buried. It was one of the items to check off their bucket list. Getting the diploma was another. At her grave, he knelt down to pray and broke into a shouting cry as he raised her diploma to the mountains – “‘You did it, baby! You did it, Dr. Karen Susanne Banks!’”

At the end of the day, Johnnie said he continues to live according to his plans with Karen. Her diploma will be placed above the fireplace of their new home in Arizona.

“I know right where she wants it,” Johnnie said.

Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or






About the Author
5 Responses
  1. Kenda Prince

    Jeanette thank you for writing this! My mom is still living on through being recognized and talked about. I am so proud of her! This brought happy tears to my eyes. Thank you:-)

    May.03.2016 at 12:49 pm
  2. John I Banks Sr. (Karen's Johnnie)

    Jeannette, I can not place the words on paper to thank you for such a wonderful and well written peace on my wonderful love and wife.
    Thank you for allowing others to be able to see who this wonderful and loving woman and educator was and how she also enjoyed this life.
    Thank you

    May.04.2016 at 10:26 am
  3. Kathy Sands

    A friend posted this article on my Facebook today. What I want to add is that although I met Karen Banks on several occasions and enjoyed her humor and friendship, it was her humility and Baha’i life of faithfulness and service which touched me the most. I did not know she had passed or studied for a Ph.D. May her spirit rejoice in nearness to God in the company of the holy ones.

    May.04.2016 at 5:08 pm
  4. Tricia Hilbun

    What an amazing story to share! Congrats to Karen for never giving up on her dream.

    May.11.2016 at 5:57 am
  5. Raymond Meriweather

    Praying for the family and Johnnie, as a PA educator and pastor and a PhD candidate, I am glad that you helped to finish your wife’s bucket list.

    Jun.20.2016 at 2:09 pm
Leave a Comment