She was a superb athlete. She led her team to two consecutive state softball championships. She was a champion skier, played in the NCAA lacrosse tournament, and qualified for the NCAA men’s skiing championships, but couldn’t compete because of her gender. She played in the premier women’s baseball league, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. However, Karen Violetta Kunkel’s greatest achievements came not on the playing field, but as an educator, administrator, and organizer.
Karen Violetta was born in Negaunee, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in 1934, one of three children and the only daughter of Fannie Maki and Adolph Violetta. Her paternal grandparents had emigrated from Italy in 1906. Adolph’s father, Joseph, worked for an iron mine, at first as a miner and later as a timberman. Karen’s maternal grandparents were born in Finland and were living in Butte, Montana, when Fannie was a child. When Fannie was 19 and Adolph was 20, they married and settled in Adolph’s hometown not far from the shores of Lake Superior. The groom first worked as a janitor at a hotel; later he operated a gas station.
As a child Karen was a self-described tomboy who joined the neighborhood children in games of “work-up.” In those pre-Title IX days few high schools offered girls opportunities for athletic competition, so Karen took her talents to amateur teams in nearby Marquette. As a teenager she played for a club from Marquette that won the girls’ Class C crown at Flint in September 1951 by defeating Athens 8-6 for the first state softball championship ever won by a club from the Upper Peninsula. The following September Marquette won its second consecutive title by defeating Bay City 6-2. In this contest the big blow was Karen’s 3-run homer in the sixth inning.
After graduating from Negaunee High School Karen attended Michigan State University, where she earned two degrees. She got her master’s degree in physical education from MSU but had to take some of her course work at Northern Michigan University because of her mother’s illness.
During her years at Michigan State Karen engaged in a number of athletic endeavors. She played in the NCAA lacrosse tournament in 1953. She also skied on the men’s ski team at MSU and qualified for the NCAA meet, but was not allowed to compete because she was female. For years she vowed she would get even for that slight--and she did! In 1976 she started the women’s national collegiate ski championships under the aegis of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. She served as a director of the AIAW championships, as a member of the organization’s National Ski Board, and on the board of directors of the Midwest Collegiate Ski Association.
In 1953 Karen finished second in the women’s downhill at a meet in Cadillac, Michigan. In 1955 she won the women’s downhill skiing championship in a competition at Cadillac. In the interval between those two events she played baseball for the Grand Rapids Chicks of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) as a utility infielder for the Chicks in 1953 and 1954.
Karen was one of the founders of the AAGPBL Players Association. At one time she was an officer in the association. Karen served as a technical advisor on the 1992 movie A League of Their Own. She helped test different actresses for skills needed to play the sport; advised movie people on the types of uniforms the players wore and some of the baseball terms and language used at the time; and showed some of the actresses with limited baseball backgrounds how to throw and catch the ball. Karen said a lot of her advice was not followed.
Her athleticism is exemplified by the following event. On February 21, 1963, twelve rugged skiers, who depended on baby diapers to protect their faces from 22 degree below zero temperatures, set out from Cadillac, Michigan, on a 50-mile hike to Traverse City. After 18 miles only five remained on the journey, the biting cold and frozen toes eliminating the others. The only woman in the group, 29-year-old Karen Kunkel, dropped out because of back trouble after 21 miles. It was one of the few times in her life that she didn’t finish what she had started. During the trip about five dozen diapers were used as face masks. The diapers had to be repIaced from time to time as icicles formed on the masks. In addition to the cold, several skiers battled leg cramps. All contestants were ski instructors or members of a ski patrol. Four hardy individuals finished the trek in a little over 12 hours of tough going.
Karen joined the physical education faculty at Northern Michigan University in 1967. Frustrated by the lack of knowledge about athletes’ health, she promoted the idea of a sports health academy, which eventually secured funding in 1982. An Associated Press reporter wrote that “Karen Kunkel can’t move mountains, but her brainchild—the Great Lakes Sports Academy—is playing a role in an American assault on Mt. Everest.”1 The climbing team went through two days of exercise tolerance testing at the academy before tackling the world’s highest mountain.
Perhaps Karen’s greatest achievement in sports was organizing and administering the U.S. Olympics Training Center at Northern Marquette University in 1985. The Center operated in cooperation with other centers at Colorado Springs and Lake Placid and provided athletes, coaches, and the Olympic movement training, research, sports medicine, and the opportunity for educational advancement. About 14,000 athletes trained at the center from 1985 to 1992. It was the only Olympic facility in the nation that combined athletic training with schooling. In combination with the Great Lakes Sports Training Center, also administered by Kunkel, it offered internship programs in sports journalism and sports management and administration. Karen retired from her position in 1988. The initial funding for the center expired in 1992. When its continuation was in doubt, Kunkel said, “It is ironic, sad, and a disgrace that just as the center reaches its maturity and its potential that is threatened with closing.”2 However, funding was secured, and the center remains in operation under the name the U. S. Olympic Education Center.
In 1986 Karen was inducted into the Northern Michigan University Sports Hall of Fame. In the same year she was listed in the Marquis publication Who’s Who of American Women. She has received many awards, including an NMU Faculty Merit Award and the Michigan Governor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Physical Fitness and Health.
While at NMU Karen married Jack Kunkel, who served the university first as director of housing and later as director of admissions. They have two sons, Scott and Kit, both of whom still live in Michigan—one in the U. P. and the other in the lower part of the Wolverine State. After retiring from NMU, Jack and Karen took a truck driving course, liked it, and got their over-the-road licenses. Living in Florida at the time, their usual route was from Florida to California to Canada and back to the Sunshine State. Among the places to which they made regular deliveries were Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney World in Orlando.
In 2005 the Lady Spirit Baseball All-Stars, representing the North American Women’s Baseball League, accepted an invitation to play a series of games in Japan against the Japanese National team. The All-Stars took along Karen Kunkel and one other former AAGPL player as good will ambassadors.
Karen and Jack recently served as program coordinators for Road Scholars (formerly known as Elderhostel.) In 2011, for example, they served as on-site coordinators for Cactus League Spring Training programs in the Phoenix area. They now split their time between Arizona and Michigan.
Karen died at the age of 83 on December 12, 2017.
Karen Kunkel, personal interview with Charles F. Faber, Phoenix, AZ, March 3, 2011.
Daily Herald (Chicago)
Intelligencer/Record (Doylestown, PA)
Ironwood (MI) Daily Globe
Montana Standard (Butte)
Traverse City (MI) Record-Eagle
1 Ironwood Daily Globe, July 21, 1983.
2 Chicago Daily Herald, February 13, 1992.