Karen’s heart always on her sleeve

Former Notre Dame associate athletic director John Heisler was a mover and shaker on campus for more than 40 years. Yet you wouldn’t find his wife Karen ever caught in his shadow.

She was a dynamo — passionate, strong, blunt, entertaining and always improving whatever she touched.

Karen died on Sept. 19 at the age of 67 from complications related to cancer.

After graduating from Purdue, she worked in the sports information department at Notre Dame, in communications at Saint Mary’s College and then as a promotion and program manager at WNDU — garnering awards at every stop. Her true calling, though, may have come in the Film, Television and Theatre Department at Notre Dame. She taught “sports and television” among other classes as an adjunct professor for 25 years. She even has a television studies award named after her.

“Her whole goal was to make make people better — better writers, better people, better thinkers, critical thinkers, and not just to accept things on their face,” Gary Sieber, her longtime coworker, told the Notre Dame Observer.

Karen was loved by her students — and maybe feared a little, too, because she always told it like it is.

That fire in her soul was never more apparent than when she put out a Twitter message just days before she died: “Welcome to the reality of the Covid crisis in Florida. My cardiologist tried to admit me to the hospital but there are no rooms because of Covid … Get the damn vaccine.”

Ironically, having Karen involved in an effort or activity was always like a shot in the arm. —  Bill Moor 


Below is the eulogy that John Heisler gave at his wife’s funeral:

Dear Karen,

Thank you for all of your unconditional love, support and encouragement. We needed every word of it.

Thank you for scolding us. We often deserved it. You perfected the difference between bluntness and political correctness — and for knowing which fit the circumstance.

Thank you for caring about all of us — and yet not being afraid to tell us, “I can’t make you care.” 

Thank you for constantly reminding us to do the right thing. As Lou Holtz used to say, “There’s a right and wrong in every situation. Just do the right thing.”

Thank you for the mentoring you provided to hundreds of students. You passed along your expertise in the television and media worlds to countless individuals whose careers you influenced positively—and your former students have been eloquent in their comments about you.

Thank you for the courage you showed us in battling breast cancer years ago and then this last health fight that you handled with ever-optimistic aplomb. You showed us how to meet personal adversity on equal terms. 

Thank you for wearing your heart on your sleeve. You taught us that having an opinion and taking a stand may not earn you friends at every turn but it earned you respect for your beliefs. We want you on our side in any debate.

Thank you for setting a standard. You taught us there’s no reason to be average.

Thank you for being so loyal. We saw how you loved your Saturday afternoon Zoom calls with your Lafayette girlfriends. You never forgot where you came from.

Thank you for teaching us not to pat ourselves on the back. You had every reason to take pride in your work and achievements, yet you left the compliments to others.

Thank you for regularly showing us how simple it is to be nice. You displayed that trait routinely and we all saw it.

Thank you for being right most all the time—and also for not rubbing it in for too long. A common retort from you was, “Am I right?” And you usually were.

Thank you for showing us the value of simplicity. You taught us how basic conversation, shared responsibility and a back rub every so often could make your days. 

Thank you for connecting on the phone every single day with Scott—from the time he was in Ireland and England to his years at Baldwin-Wallace and now Trinity. Those conversations meant the world to him.

Thank you for believing in Tim and for all your great advice and counsel. Tim is who he is today thanks to all that you did. 

Thank you for showing us how to love our animals. From Bailey to Art, from chocolate and black labs to rescue dogs, you made them our family. 

Thank you for loving Art with all your heart. Instead of sleeping in the bedroom this last week he has been on the rug by the front door. He misses you and wants to know when you’re coming home. We don’t have a good answer for him.

Thank you for silently correcting our grammar. We benefited from your blue-chip proof-reading.

Thank you for making sure we knew that Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Carole King were some of your favorites. We came to love your feel-good sounds as much as you did.

Thank you for helping create a local youth lacrosse league so that pre-high school players for the first time could play the game. You rank as one of the pioneers of the game in this community. 

Thank you for making us understand why Glen Arbor and upper Michigan in general were your happy places. We all know your ultimate comfort zones. 

Thank you for creating what turned out to be your own farewell tour—three fantastic weddings over the summer, a great week on Cape Cod, an August trip to Ohio for your Croake family reunion and another week in South Bend later in August when you arranged almost every breakfast, lunch and dinner with all those you wanted to connect with. We were the beneficiaries of all those. 

And, finally, Karen, thank you for the way you loved us, the example you set and the memories you left behind. Please know that there are so many who will join us in honoring your memory all the rest of our days.

–With all our love—John, Scott and Tim