Karen Roza, 77, a longtime resident of Swarthmore and Rose Valley, died November 15 in Louisville, Colorado. This obituary was written by her son Eric Roza.
Karen (née Ordell) moved to Swarthmore in 1965 with her husband, Bob Roza, her former graduate school professor at Indiana University, where she was pursuing a master’s degree in French. She began work on her Ph.D. at Penn, but her academic ambitions were put on hold following my arrival in 1967, and that of my sister, Nadja, in 1971.
Over the next 50 years, my folks split their time between Swarthmore and France (first Paris, then Grenoble, and finally at their beloved Provençal home in La Roquebrussane). Nothing defined or delighted Karen more than the cocktails and dinners she hosted for dozens of visiting friends in her lavender-filled French garden.
Born to a working-class family in St. Paul, Minnesota, Karen established herself as the family maverick, with a fierce intellectual curiosity coupled with an ambition and irreverence that endeared her to the more enlightened faculty of St. Catherine University where she went to college. She recalled in later life “high” praise from a professor who told her, “You have the best mind of any girl I’ve ever taught.”
Her academic prowess led to a Fulbright scholarship in France, which ignited a lifelong travel bug as she crisscrossed Europe on an underpowered moped. Karen’s travels would ultimately lead her to destinations such as China, Galapagos, India, Madagascar and Vietnam. She established meaningful friendships with innumerable fellow travelers, tour guides, and locals along the way.
Out of thriftiness, she taught herself to reupholster a chair shortly after Nadja’s birth, and thus began a forty-year accidental career. Hundreds of Swarthmore and area homes have since been graced with her handiwork. A consummate craftswoman, she insisted on doing all her upholstery by hand, and personally delivered couches into her seventies, strapping them precariously onto the dented roof of her trusty Dodge Caravan.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is my daily after-school visit to the chaos of her workshop at 233 Cornell. She worked amidst the debris of a thrift store’s worth of upended furniture, with the zeal of all great craftspeople, oblivious to time, the cold air and noxious emissions from the ancient kerosene heater she refused to abandon. We talked of school, sports, music, girls, and other matters of great import.
In 2001 Mom and Dad moved to Todmorden Lane in Rose Valley, a tiny road that delivery persons, much to her annoyance, could never find. There she continued her upholstery business, in an unheated barn with her beloved heater.
Mom and Dad joined us in Colorado two years ago. She grudgingly joined CrossFit Sanitas, the gym my wife and I founded in Boulder. Rediscovering fitness in her late seventies and the deep cross-generational friendships she forged in the process were an unexpected highlight of her final years. I will forever savor the text she sent me, at the tender age of 76, bragging about her first 100-pound deadlift!
Once in Colorado, “Kiki” hosted frequent sleepovers with her grandchildren, instilling in them her love of foreign culture, painting, flowers, and birds. She developed special personal relationships with Nick, Layna, Aiden and Sophie, reveling in their individuality, and offering each the deep spirit of unconditional love she extended to us all.
In August, she developed an unidentifiable and untreatable auto-immune disease, which led to a rapid decline. Nevertheless, during this time she enjoyed wonderful visits from Swarthmore friends Bonnie and Vince Anderson, and Pam Butler (Beeman), as well as from Penny and Phil Weinstein, now of Martha’s Vineyard. I had the honor of caring for Mom daily during this journey, and feel deeply enriched by this special time with her. She maintained to the end a pleasure in the small things: visits from friends and grandkids, vanilla milkshakes, and daily sing-alongs to our old faves, “Brown-Eyed Girl” and Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight.” My last memory of Mom’s engagement with the world was her mouthing along with me, voicelessly, the elegiac chorus to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” just two days before she died.
We will be holding a celebration of Karen’s rich life in Swarthmore this spring. Music will be played, grandkids will be present, and vanilla milkshakes will be served. All who wish to attend are invited.
Karen was predeceased by her daughter Nadja, who died at age 17, and her sister Joan Ordell. She is survived by her husband of 53 years, Bob, of Louisville, professor emeritus of Swarthmore College; her son Eric Roza (Melissa) of Boulder; their four children; and her nephew, Steve Ordell (Nancy) and their children of St. Paul, Minnesota.