Lizs Legacy - Liz Karnes Loses Fight Against Cancer

Liz Karnes Loses Fight Against Cancer

Posted: Thu, Jan 1, 2009

By Paul Goodsell
Reprinted with permission from the Omaha World-Herald.
Originally published: 04/24/2003

Liz Karnes didn't give in to cancer when it first hit in 1991. For more than 12 years, the Omaha community leader waged a public battle against the illness. She endured extensive treatments and occasional setbacks and inspired many with her courage and positive attitude. "She offered a remarkable sense of hope," said Westside Superintendent Ken Bird. "People would have written her off many years ago. But there was a little smile, a twinkle in her eye even when she was really down." Her fight ended Thursday morning when Karnes, 53, died at home. Services will be Monday, although details are pending.

The wife of former U.S. Sen. David Karnes, Liz Karnes always was more than a cancer patient. She was the mother of four girls. She held a doctorate in education. She served on national policy boards, as well as the Omaha Airport Authority and the District 66 school board.

At one point, the lifelong Republican was considered a rising political star. But her health woes began in March 1991, derailing her political career and turning her life upside down. She dropped out of a race for the Omaha City Council and began years of treatment for ovarian cancer and various complications.

It was a painful, tiring, expensive struggle. Karnes spent hundreds of days in hospitals and endured many surgeries. She lost her ability to eat and had to hook herself to a feeding tube.

But she was characteristically upbeat and determined, drawing strength from prayer and a supportive family. Even after new cancer was discovered in her kidneys a year ago, Karnes continued to focus on the positive aspects of her life.

While she regretted the loss of her privacy through news stories about her illness, she also felt that she was helping others. Friends and strangers alike sought advice and encouragement about their own health problems, and Karnes tried to take every call. "I think that was one of the things I was meant to do," she said in an interview last year.

When the ovarian cancer was first discovered, her daughters ranged in age from seven to 14. Her deepest wish was to live long enough to see them grow up.

May 2002 marked a key milestone. The youngest Karnes daughter, Laurel, wrapped up her high school career at Westside, and her proud mother was able to be part of it.

In fact, as a board member, she signed Laurel's diploma - just as she had done earlier for daughters Korey, Kalen and Kara. Karnes lived almost a year longer, but her health declined. She was present at just a few school board meetings, most recently in October.

Until a month ago, however, she continued to stay in touch. "She was a prolific e - mailer," said Westside board President Scott Hazelrigg. And it wasn't unusual for him to receive phone calls from people who began the conversation: "I talked to Liz, and she suggested I call you."

Hazelrigg and Bird said Karnes will be missed for her dedication to schools and her ability to help board members reach a consensus. Among other things, Karnes headed the board during Westside's first successful override of the state property tax lid.

"Liz was absolutely the best advocate for kids and our community that I've ever had the privilege of working with," Hazelrigg said. The daughter of an Omaha building contractor, Elizabeth Lueder Karnes was a voracious reader and a competitive swimmer who started assembling an impressive resume while still a schoolgirl.

A 1967 Westside High graduate, she was treasurer of Girls' State in 1966 and represented Nebraska at Girls' Nation. At the University of Nebraska, she majored in English and Spanish, graduating magna cum laude. In college, she met David Karnes, a member of the Husker swim team. They fell in love, and she became his biggest fan. "She was so vivacious, always on the go," her husband said in 1989. "We found out that we had so much in common."

They married in 1971. While her husband completed law school, Liz Karnes taught in the Lincoln school system and earned a master's degree. After the couple moved to Omaha in 1974, she earned a doctorate in educational administration, taught at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and took a position in curriculum at Boys Town.

In 1981 her husband received a White House fellowship, and the family lived in Washington, D.C. Liz Karnes worked as an unpaid research assistant for a literacy program started by Barbara Bush, wife of then - Vice President George Bush.

The next year, she applied for her own White House fellowship. She made the list of finalists but was not chosen. So the Karneses returned to Omaha. The Karneses also were involved in civic affairs. Both earned distinguished service awards from the Omaha Jaycees. She was active in Junior League, the Girl Scouts and other organizations.

After the death of Sen. Ed Zorinsky in 1987, then - Gov. Kay Orr tapped David Karnes as his replacement. Besides adjusting to the Senate job, the Karneses immediately had to launch a statewide campaign - first against primary challenger Hal Daub, and then against former Gov. Bob Kerrey, who defeated Karnes in 1988.

Liz Karnes distinguished herself as a poised campaigner at her husband's side. Her intelligence and personality led some to consider her a possible candidate for an office higher than school board.

Politically, while she was loyal to the Republican Party, she broke with its leaders on education issues. She opposed private - school vouchers and backed higher property taxes to support public schools.

In 1989 she said she was offered, but turned down, a position "pretty high up" in the U.S. Department of Education, citing family considerations. Two years later, she launched her City Council bid. But she dropped out when the ovarian cancer was discovered.

To get rid of the cancer, Karnes and her husband decided that she should have 10 weeks of radiation treatment instead of the customary six. It was the right choice, she said later, because less radiation probably wouldn't have done the job.

But the side effect was damage to her digestive tract that forced her to rely on intravenous feedings. Eventually, she underwent surgery to repair her organs and allow her to eat again.

In late 2001, Karnes began losing weight again. She dropped to 88 pounds on her 5 - foot - 2 frame before going back to intravenous food, and the kidney cancer was discovered about the same time.

Since then, Karnes was in and out of hospitals as she struggled with infections and other problems. People who saw her at soccer games or school events couldn't always tell how much effort it took to keep going. Karnes wanted it that way. "I want to give them hope," she once said.

She was hospitalized repeatedly in recent months, but spent much of her time at home. Among other things, she made plans for her own funeral. In an interview last spring, Karnes said she didn't worry about death. When she became ill 12 years ago, she said, her biggest concern was the thought of leaving her husband with four young girls to raise. "Now we've done that," Karnes said. "Any more is just icing on the cake."


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