By Debra Vaughn
For Sno-Isle Libraries
When Karen Alessi was young, she sat on the end of a dock at Lake Stevens and sketched plans for a new city downtown.
Years later, Alessi helped shape Lake Stevens as a volunteer and a civic leader. She died Sept. 24 at age 75 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. But her legacy lives on anytime someone visits Lake Stevens Library.
“Karen was one of those bedrock members of the community,” said Eric Spencer, who managed the library from 2000-2003. “She was a planner and visionary for the future of the community and believed the library was essential to its success. She also represented the quintessential library customer whose high expectations we were striving to meet.”
It was Alessi who, in 1984, led the charge for a library to replace the one that was shoehorned into an old post office building. For years city leaders knew the growing community needed a larger library, but finding the money to expand proved difficult.
Alessi was a member of the Friends of the Library and a co-director of the project. She helped gather support and donations to turn a pharmacy into a 2,400-square-foot library, tripling the size of the previous location. The library was built with donated labor, materials and cash. Alessi, who had connections with Hewlett-Packard, talked the company into kicking in $5,000 for the project.
At the time, Alessi told the Lake Stevens Journal, “It’s been a wonderful experience. It’s been lovely to see all the contributions. We’ve had some interesting methods of donation.”
An avid reader and ‘professional volunteer’
Her husband, Art Alessi, described his late wife as a frequent library patron and avid reader, who devoured sometimes four or five books a week. She liked fiction and non-fiction – whatever struck her fancy.
“She was a big reader all her life,” he said. “She could read fast and retain just about everything she read.”
Alessi was born Karen Johnson in Seattle. Most of her childhood her family lived in Everett, but the family spent every summer in a cabin on Lake Stevens. As a young woman, she liked to water ski and swim.
She met Art Alessi as a student at the University of Washington. He was her next-door neighbor. She moved to Hawaii before graduation and Art followed. They moved back to the area in 1968. The pair were married 50 years when Karen Alessi died. They have one daughter, Allison Alessi.
Karen Alessi was by all accounts a vivacious people-person who loved to entertain and tell stories. Her husband described her as a “professional volunteer,” always ready to start a new project.
“When Karen set her mind to do something, there was nothing you could do to stop her,” Alessi said. He described himself as “a tag-along husband.”
Her determination extended to her personal life. She always wanted to finish her degree and not just anywhere, but at Smith College. So at age 49, Alessi packed up the car and moved to Northampton, Mass., by herself to finish her degree. She graduated in 1992.
Her commitment to the community expanded beyond the library. Alessi served as president of the Lake Stevens City Council and the Rotary Club. She revitalized Aquafest and brought a rowing club, regattas and major athletic events to town that brought dollars and exposure to Lake Stevens. She served on the Arts Commission, helped start a music at the park program and encouraged the city to display the work of local artists at City Hall. She worked to get a bigger, better Senior Center, too.
She was an active Chamber of Commerce member and the Chamber made her an inaugural Lake Stevens Hall of Fame inductee in 2009.
“Karen was pivotal in bringing so much to Lake Stevens,” said Tonya Christoffersen, a long-time member of the Chamber of Commerce. “She was vivacious, very outgoing, full of energy, always doing things for the community. She was always forward thinking.”
Today the library needs another champion like Karen Alessi. The library again is popping its stitches. In the past 15 years, the city of Lake Stevens has expanded its boundaries and grown from 6,000 people to 30,000.
The Lake Stevens Library covers the same service area as the Lake Stevens School District and serves 40,000 people. City leaders have talked about a new library for years. Those plans were shelved when the economy tanked. Now that the economy is improving, city leaders are again talking about a bond measure in the next few years.
Karen Alessi remained cheerful, even in her final years as Alzheimer’s robbed her mind. Her husband cared for her at their home as long as he could. Then he would visit her at the nursing home, Bethany at Silver Lake, nearly daily. He’d take her for a ride and every Friday they’d go to the Senior Center for lunch, where her old friends still would stop by and see her.
“She had a great sense of humor,” Art Alessi said. “She found life funny. She was very positive. She could find the most positive thing in everything that happened. She loved people. She just had a great love for life.”