Karen's Classroom dedicated to La Crosse environmental activist

Chuck Lee, left, and Jim Ringstrom stand near Karen’s Classroom, an ampitheater with a free telescope The Friends of La Crosse River Marsh and the family and friends of Karen Ringstrom built in the park in memoriam for her.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune

The late Karen Ringstrom would love the amphitheater on the edge of the La Crosse River Marsh that bears her name, said her husband, Jim Ringstrom.

“I think she’d be a little embarrassed to have her name on it, but very pleased with the project as a whole,” Ringstrom said.

Ringstrom, along with the Friends of the La Crosse River Marsh, will host a dedication ceremony for Karen’s Classroom at 11 a.m. Friday at the new amphitheater and telescope in Myrick Park, just behind the Myrick Center.

Karen’s longtime friend, Maureen Freedland, described the amphitheater as “a real tribute to her love and her enthusiasm.

“She was a wonderful champion for La Crosse, and I wish we had her for longer, but we were really lucky to have her when we did,” Freedland said.

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Karen's Classroom dedicated to La Crosse environmental activist

The late Karen Ringstrom in 2015 listens carefully during a meeting to form Citizens Acting for Rail Safety Midwest. 

Karen, who died of cancer in 2015, was known as a community activist and citizen environmentalist, particularly for her work with the Friends of the Marsh and co-founding Citizens Acting for Rail Safety with Freedland, as well as updating the city of La Crosse and La Crosse County sign ordinances.

While Karen did a lot of volunteering and community service, it was usually behind-the-scenes, rather than in the public eye, according to Friends of the Marsh president Chuck Lee.

“She was a leader in the community, but she was more in the background and organizational role,” Lee added.

She rarely took the spotlight, but her love of the nature of La Crosse shone through.

When Karen died, the Ringstrom family asked memorials be directed to the Friends of the Marsh, rather than for flowers. Ringstrom hoped to fund a new, free telescope for Myrick Park, which would let viewers look across the marsh at the wildlife without having to pay.

“That’s the one thing I wanted to do with the memorial is replace the telescope,” Ringstrom said. “It evolved from there.”

The Friends of the Marsh, working with the Ringstrom family, wanted to do something education-related, honoring Karen’s work with children and educational programs for First Congregational Church in La Crosse, as well has her love of the environment. They settled on an outdoor amphitheater to serve as an outdoor classroom right off of the marsh she loved.

“It seemed to be a very good fit for us,” said Lee, pointing out that environmental education is one of the main goals of the organization.

After the Friends of the Marsh went public with its plans last February, donations poured in, both from individuals and in the form of a grant from the La Crosse Community Foundation.

“We didn’t have to mount a fundraising campaign,” Lee said. “I think that’s indicative of A) what we were doing for the community and B) how people responded to the idea of a memorial to Karen.”

Ringstrom was overwhelmed by the response.

“People came out of the woodwork, and it all worked out,” Ringstrom said.

The group contracted Coulee Region Eco-Scapes for the construction, trusting to the company’s experience to protect the marsh and its wildlife from any side effects of construction.

“It not only has to function as an amphitheater, it has to fit the location as well,” Lee said.

The design for Karen’s Classroom built into the existing slope on the edge, creating a useful, intimate setting allowing for seating in three rows, with a stone staircase leading down.

“It’s interesting when you’re walking down the path, you don’t even see it. You see the telescopes and then as you get closer it comes into view,” Ringstrom said.

They chose limestone for the construction to bring to mind the bluffs and blend in with the landscape.

“It’s a local rock and so visible to all of us, we thought it was appropriate material to use,” Lee said.

While it will age and darken a little, it will also last quite a while.

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Karen's Classroom dedicated to La Crosse environmental activist

The late Karen Ringstrom shakes hands May 26, 2015, with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. A memorial to Ringstrom, honoring her dedication to the environment, will open Friday.

When Freedland visited Karen’s Classroom on Tuesday, she was touched to see such a long-lasting and fitting memorial to her friend.

“It’s sad because she should be here. She should still be here working with everyone and still working to make La Crosse better, nurturing her friends and loving her community,” Freedland said.

While the classroom is well above the high-water line, its position on the edge of the marsh gives it a stunning view.

“Karen just loved the nature of La Crosse. She loved the water, the bluffs, the recreational trails and the bluffs. All of that is her right there,” Freedland said.

While it hasn’t officially been opened, the children and adults of La Crosse are already taking advantage of its beauty.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see artists sitting out here with sketchpads,” Ringstrom said.

Lee chimed in, “We already have.”

Ringstrom encouraged everyone to come to the marsh to look, listen, learn and enjoy.

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La Crosse city government reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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