Karen Goelzer-McKaig leaves legacy of caring for children
JANESVILLE—It takes a special person to say “Let the little children come unto me” and actually mean it.
Children who are 3 and 4 years old are cute, but their neediness, their nonstop conversation and their occasional outbursts can be tiring.
Karen Goelzer-McKaig loved children.
“She had a special affinity for children,” said Mary Ann Buenzow, whose kids attended Goelzer's First Step Nursery School, which still operates as a nursery school even without Goelzer.
“When my kids had birthdays or graduations and wanted to invite someone—an adult outside the family group—they always picked her because she had such an influence on their lives,” Buenzow said.
Goelzer-McKaig died March 11 at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center in Janesville. She was 77 years old.
She leaves behind an extended family and hundreds of children she taught during her 36 years at Goelzer's First Step. She also will be missed by the large circle of friends she made through her volunteer work at Rotary Botanical Gardens, the Rock County Historical Society, Meals on Wheels and ECHO.
In honor of those efforts, she received the YWCA's Woman of Distinction Award in 1999.
Goelzer-McKaig started her teaching career in the Janesville School District in 1958. When her two children, Eric and Curt, were born, she decided to stay home. As they got older, she started working three days a week at the nursery school, which was then owned by Lynne Wood.
After Wood died in the late 1970s, her husband, Bill Wood, asked Goelzer-McKaig if she wanted to run the school. After a lot of thought, she decided to take it on.
In 1980, Goelzer-McKaig's first husband, John Goelzer, died of cancer. Her boys were 10 and 13 years old at the time. She considered going back to teaching in the public schools but decided to stay at the nursery school.
Those were difficult times.
In a 2007 interview, Goelzer-McKaig said, “Sometimes, I don't know how I did it.”
But she managed, teaching school for 36 years.
Goelzer-McKaig eventually married Tom McKaig, who died in 2003. In 2005, she sold the business to Cindy Hackett but continued to teach there for another two years.
She retired in June 2007 at age 67. Her retirement party was attended by the children she taught in the early days and their children, whom she also taught.
When asked what made Goelzer-McKaig so special, people always mention her connection with children.
She had a kind voice, they said. “The kindest person you'd ever meet,” they said. Someone even described her face as “as gentle as any children's book heroine.”
She was interested in children's concerns, the small things they thought were important.
“Kids flocked to her,” Buenzow said. “They knew she really cared about them.”
“The kids loved it there,” said Teresa Nguyen, who sent two of her three boys to Goelzer's school. “They never wanted to go home.”
A few weeks ago, Buenzow and her grown children were playing a board game called “Truth Be Told.” The game requires players to answer a question, and the other players have to guess whose answer is whose.
“One of the questions was, 'Who is the kindest person you know?'” Buenzow said. “And her name came up.”
Goelzer-McKaig had a way with parents, too. A one-way mirror at her school allowed parents to see their kids in action without the kids being aware.
“It could be eye-opening,” Buenzow said.
It was a tactful way of sharing good and bad behaviors.
Between her retirement and her death, Goelzer-McKaig put her caring nature to work at various nonprofits.
She was a longtime volunteer at Rotary Botanical Gardens, starting there while she still owned the nursery school.
Horticulture manager Mark Dwyer dedicated his March 16 blog to her.
“She was dedicated and hard-working, which would be no surprise to anyone that knew Karen,” Dwyer wrote. “More importantly, she was a human being of the highest quality and always had a kind word for everyone and a perpetual smile on her face.”