A master teacher and intrepid traveler, Individuals and Societies teacher Karen Palmer inspired students and faculty alike with her kindness,
determination, and grace
REPORTING BY COOPER LYON & KAITLIN CHUNG
Palmer with students on a school trip to Munich, Germany in 2019.
Karen Palmer in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in France.
Mustafa Ataturk once said, “A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.” For over thirty years, Individuals and Societies teacher Karen Palmer epitomized Ataturk’s words by pouring herself into mentoring her students and encouraging all those around her to live life to the fullest. Those who knew her marveled at how she approached each day with joy, humor, and a sense of adventure. Palmer passed away on Oct. 31, 2020, after a battle with cancer, leaving an enduring impact that extended beyond her classroom and the school, living on in the hearts and minds of her students and colleagues.
After teaching at her alma mater Thomas Edison High School in Elmira Heights, Palmer arrived at C-PPHS in the fall of 2014. From the moment he met her, Individuals and Societies department chair David Rich knew that Palmer was the perfect fit.
“I had the pleasure of being on the interview committee when Ms. Palmer was applying at C-PP High School. We had several applicants with extensive portfolios and sample lesson plans, but Ms. Palmer came in, sat down, and dazzled us with her experience and calm demeanor,” Rich said. “In essence, she was really interviewing us to see if C-PP was a good fit for her. Immediately, we knew she was the type of person we not only wanted to work with, but wanted as a friend.”
In the following years, hundreds of students passed through her classrooms’ doors, Palmer connecting with each one because of her vibrant personality and teaching methods.
“The thing that I can remember distinctly about Ms. Palmer is her bright and full smile. It was one of the brightest I’ve ever seen. I had her class ninth period, but her enthusiasm stayed with me even after I went home,” junior Eva Adib said. “She was a very nurturing teacher, but at the same time, she encouraged her students to take on all different challenges. That’s what I believe she is remembered for, and what I think she would like to be remembered for: her kindness and encouragement to think critically and apply values like integrity and individuality.”
To her colleagues, Palmer was an inspiration both inside and outside of school. With an infectious love of life, she taught valuable lessons to many, including Individuals and Societies teacher Kimberly Hufnagel.
“For two summers, Ms. Palmer and I went to Rochester for an entire week for training sessions. I learned so much about her during that time together,” Hufnagel said. “Whereas I wanted to stay in our shared room and look over notes I took that day, Ms. Palmer insisted that I get out and enjoy the beautiful summer day. I cannot tell you how many miles we walked each day, but it was a lot. When I wanted to eat somewhere I was familiar with, Ms. Palmer would kindly remind me that trying new restaurants is what life is about. She truly knew how to live life.”
Senior Samantha Ward with Palmer on a school trip in Austria.
Palmer and science teacher Bonnie Grinnell at a castle in Ireland over spring break 2016.
Palmer’s sense of adventure led her around the world to Ireland, England, France, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Italy, and the Alps; she inspired her students and colleagues to enrich their own understanding of history and international culture by doing the same.
“I was fortunate enough to benefit from Mrs. Palmer’s love of travel first-hand. A few years ago, she came back to school in the fall fresh from one of her overseas adventures and suggested, half-jokingly, that we should plan a department trip to Ireland. Joking or not, plans were soon in motion and Mrs. Palmer, Mr. Shepard, Mr. Fisher, Mrs. Quackenbush, and I spent a once-in-a-lifetime spring break in Ireland,” Individuals and Societies teacher Heather McMinn said. “I will never forget the fun we had on that trip and I will forever be thankful to Mrs. Palmer for making the suggestion that started it all.”
Like McMinn, Dean of Students Michael Hurd also had the opportunity to travel with Palmer during the 2019 school trip to Europe. “When she started planning for a 2019 World War II trip to Europe and asked me to join her as a chaperone, I jumped at the chance and I am so glad that I did. I have taken many such trips over my years in the district, and the typical lead chaperone is pretty uptight throughout the experience. Karen was exceptional at delegating responsibilities to her chaperones and setting a perfect tone of expecting students to be punctual and look out for each other,” Dean of Students Michael Hurd said.
Individuals and Societies teacher Brian Kelley, Dean of Students Michael Hurd and Palmer at the London Eye.
“She set the tone for all of us in her excitement to see everything and the absolute joy she exuded by living in the moment. It was the best trip I’ve ever taken, and upon return we began planning our next adventure. It never came.” In honor of Palmer’s passion for travel and history of chaperoning trips for C-PPHS students, her colleagues and the district established a travel fund for students interested in attending a school-sponsored overseas trip.
Helping to set up the fund was one of many ways that retired C-PPHS teacher Cathy Patterson, one of Palmer’s former colleagues and closest friends, remembered and honored her memories with Palmer.
“Karen had a deep appreciation for the preciousness of each day and made the most of every hour. Always up for an adventure, we shared many hours walking, attending concerts, visiting Chautauqua in the summer, going to our area lakes, playing golf, and of course, making a fabulous trip to Europe the year I retired," Patterson said. "She was an avid Adirondack hiker, canoeer, kayaker, and camper. Any time when she could be outdoors breathing in the fresh air, she would be her happiest. She valued relationships and experiences over any type of material possessions or wealth, and was a constant presence in the lives of her family members and friends. Karen is no doubt enjoying the adventures of heaven these days, but her impact, like that of all good teachers, will have ripple effects that last for many years to come.”
Indeed, Palmer’s legacy extended around the school to reach another one of her dear friends, Business and Technology teacher Sharon Wilcox. “Her smile, her humor, her laughter, her positivity, the love of the outdoors, nature and adventure, the need to travel, all of these things described Karen Palmer,” Wilcox said. “Her personality drew people to her and her outlook was always bright. These attributes made her a loving mother, a beloved daughter, a wonderful friend and a great teacher. She not only loved to teach but truly loved to take her students on international adventures. She was just as excited as the students, and she always looked forward to the next one. If she taught us anything with her positive attitude, it was how to believe in yourself, to look forward and to be the best you can be.”
Palmer touched thousands of lives through decades of teaching lessons in her classroom, but Individuals and Societies teacher Bryan Kelley believed she saved the most important lesson for last.
“When Karen discovered that she was sick, it was devastating to everyone but her. As a teacher she taught many lessons, however it was the final six months of life that would become her greatest lesson. She said, ‘Life is going to provide you with joys and sorrows. All we can do is embrace each other and smile as we move forward,’” Kelley said.
“She marched on through life the same as she always had. Up until the last couple of weeks of her life, she traveled, spent time with family and friends, and continued to learn. Her positive energy and endearing smile never faded.”