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Lizs Legacy - Saying Farewell To A Friend

Saying Farewell To A Friend

About 2,000 show up to pay their respects to Omaha's Liz Karnes.

Posted: Thu, Jan 1, 2009

By Paul Goodsell
Reprinted with permission from the Omaha World-Herald.
Originally published: 04/29/2003

A few years ago, Liz Karnes' four daughters put together a list of 50 things they loved about their mother. No. 33: "Everybody thinks she is their best friend." Monday, lots of those best friends packed Dundee Presbyterian Church to remember Karnes, 53, an Omaha community leader who died Thursday. About 2,000 attended the memorial service, filling the main church and spilling into the basement and other areas.

A day earlier, at a Sunday visitation that lasted five hours instead of the scheduled three, the Karnes family greeted hundreds of friends. Most waited in line for two hours.

The wife of former U.S. Sen. David Karnes and the daughter of a construction company owner, Liz Lueder Karnes was widely known. She was on the Westside school board for 17 years, played an active role in community groups and inspired many with her 12 - year battle with cancer.

Gov. Mike Johanns and Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey attended Monday's service, along with other politicians and business leaders. But not everyone remembering Liz Karnes was rich, famous or powerful.

Jean James, who spoke at the service, said she wants the community to know and celebrate a lesser - known side of Liz Karnes. For her, Karnes was a mentor and friend who reached out to help a black woman and her extended family. "I want people to know, she's not only with the richest families," James said. "She's with the ones who don't have anything. She treated us just the same."

In 1990, before she was diagnosed with cancer, Karnes contacted a church in northeast Omaha and asked whether there was someone she could sponsor and mentor. James, who was raising three sons alone, initially was skeptical of "this little, tiny white lady." As time went by, however, James realized that her relationship with Karnes was the best thing that ever happened to her. Karnes and her husband worked with James to find alternatives to living on welfare. She loved children, so the Karneses helped her open a day - care center - donating books, toys and legal advice. Later, they encouraged her to become a foster parent.

Karnes talked with James about the value of education. She gave Christmas gifts to her children, grandchildren and foster children. The Karnes family took the kids to hockey games and the zoo, hosted the James family every year at a holiday dinner and played basketball with her sons in the Karnes' driveway. "We've been made a part of the family so long," James said.

Monday, speaker after speaker recounted how Karnes had influenced their lives. "God sent Liz into the world," said the Rev. Val Peter, head of Girls and Boys Town , where Karnes once worked. "She was His very special initiative. Every one of us was touched."

The Karneses acknowledged that impact, saying they appreciated hearing people's tributes to her life. "To Liz, every day of her life was another opportunity to help someone," the family said in a printed statement. "She had a truly God - given gift to understand people, their needs, their life challenges and their talents. She made real differences in people's lives."

James agreed. "Everything she instilled in me, everything she taught, I try to live it exactly as she presented it to me." Even so, James said, she feels as though she has lost her best friend.

Last December, it was time for Karnes' annual shopping trip to buy Christmas gifts for the James family. James knew her friend was particularly ill and thought they shouldn't go. But Karnes insisted. So off they went to Wal - Mart - Karnes, her sister Carrie May and James. They got a wheelchair for Karnes and began to pick out T - shirts, socks and other items.

James was pushing the wheelchair, but at one point May took over. James remembers feeling that she was losing something. "I was thinking, 'I want to push my friend,'" she said Monday. "I wanted to hold onto my friend."

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