Posthumous doctorate still counts on her bucket list
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.
“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.