Contributed by John Emmeus Davis with the generous assistance of Jack Beckford, June 2017.
Karen Blaydes (1948-2009) joined the Student Health Coalition (SHC) in 1970, two weeks after graduating from Vanderbilt University with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish. This was the first year that students who were not preparing for a medical career were recruited by the SHC to live for the summer in Appalachia. Karen was assigned to Briceville along with another Vanderbilt undergraduate, John Davis. They were one of five male-female teams of “community workers” who were sent to East Tennessee that summer. Each pair was responsible for making preparations for the one-week Health Fair that was headed their way and for arranging follow-up medical care and social services after the doctors and nurses left town. They were also expected to do community organizing around issues deemed important by local residents, issues that would hopefully become the basis for a grassroots campaign or a new nonprofit organization through which low-income people might act as their own advocates, solving their own problems.
In Briceville, the lack of primary care was the problem most urgently on the minds of local leaders. They had established the Briceville Health Council the year before and extended an invitation to SHC to hold a summer Health Fair in Briceville. The Council’s president was a retired coal miner named Byrd Duncan, who was destined to play a pivotal role in furthering SHC’s work.
Karen had never set foot in Appalachia before the summer of 1970. She had grown up in a suburb of Houston, Texas. Her mother was a nurse. Her father was employed in the oil industry. It was his job that led the family to Venezuela for three years while Karen was still in Junior High. Living there, she became fluent in Spanish. She also began using a camera for the first time. Photography became a life-long avocation. Wherever she lived, wherever she worked, she brought along a camera. That included her time in Appalachia, where she took countless photographs of the people and places she encountered during her two summers with the SHC and many subsequent trips to East Tennessee visiting friends she had made in the mountains.
Karen got assigned to Briceville purely by accident. During SHC’s orientation week in June 1970, Bill Dow asked Byrd Duncan to come to Nashville to give the Vanderbilt students a taste of Appalachian wit and wisdom before entering a culture very different than their own. Byrd obliged. Leaning on his cane in a lecture hall filled with newly minted members of the Student Health Coalition, he described the health needs of his community; he regaled his audience with tales of life in the mines; and he introduced them to shape note singing, wheezing out an old-timey hymn in a high-pitched voice squeezed by Black Lung. Karen took a few photographs of Byrd, who was never shy around a camera, and then stepped closer to peer at the song sheet he was holding. Byrd grabbed her by the arm and gave her a breathless, bewildering tutorial on reading shape notes. John Davis happened to be in the circle as well, singing wildly off key. The next day, as the summer teams were being formed, Bill Dow announced that Karen and John (who had just met the day before) would be sent to Briceville because “you got along so well with Byrd and nothing happens in Briceville without Byrd Duncan’s approval.”
How right he was. Byrd’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Student Health Coalition opened doors in Briceville – and throughout the county. He provided both the entrée and legitimacy that Karen and John would need to do their work. At the same time, his patriarchal style of leadership left little room for others to participate, often frustrating the efforts of the two SHC community workers to draw younger people onto the Health Council or to broaden the Council’s agenda beyond Byrd’s single-minded focus on opening his own clinic.
Karen was sent to Briceville because she “got along so well with Byrd and nothing happens in Briceville without Byrd Duncan’s approval.”
Learn more about Byrd Duncan from his profile.
Amidst the opportunities and obstacles presented by their sponsor’s outsized presence, Karen proved to be a natural organizer, nudging her Appalachian neighbors into the front of every picture as she strategically disappeared behind the camera. She was especially effective in gently coaching and respectfully supporting local women who were still finding their voices in a traditional mountain culture where nearly all of the leaders were men.
At the end of her first summer in Appalachia, Karen moved to Atlanta, taking a job teaching Spanish at Frederick Douglass High School. As a newly hired white teacher in a public school where all of her students were black, neither her chilly principal nor her skeptical peers expected Karen to last more than a year or two before she’d be moving on to a “better” school. She stayed for nearly three decades, until declining health forced her into an early retirement.
At Douglass, Karen shared her skills in Spanish, creative writing, and photography with successive waves of motivated teenagers who responded willingly to her insistence on high-quality work and who continued to consider “Miz Blaydes” a mentor and friend long after they had graduated. In addition to teaching introductory and AP Spanish, Karen became the faculty sponsor for the yearbook. Douglass soon began winning repeat awards for the best high school yearbook in the state of Georgia.
It was hardly an accident that dozens of her students in Advanced Spanish, as well as those on the yearbook staff, later found their way to Vanderbilt University, coaxed in that direction by their favorite teacher. An unofficial tally suggests that Karen may have recruited more African American students for her alma mater than any other individual over a period of 30 years. Several became teachers themselves – two of them teaching Spanish in Atlanta’s public schools.
One of Karen’s favorite authors was Larry McMurtry, a fellow Texan whose body of work included Leaving Cheyenne, a novelette that served as the centerpiece of her master’s thesis. Karen was particularly fond of a quote from McMurtry’s best-known novel, Lonesome Dove: “I figured out why you and me get along so well. You know more than you say and I say more than I know. That means we’re a perfect match.”
Karen was the former, someone of quiet intelligence who seemed always to know more than she felt compelled to say. She watched and listened. When she spoke, thoughtfulness and kindness guided her words. She regularly found herself in the lonely role of trusted confidant for the voluble, extroverted people to whom she was drawn. Karen laughed easily among them, the perfect match for young students and old friends less reluctant than she to chatter passionately about more than they actually knew.
Karen was someone of quiet intelligence who seemed always to know more than she felt compelled to say.
Karen died on March 3, 2009. Several of her former students took the lead in planning her funeral, attended by scores of teachers and students from a school she had left nearly ten years before. Her untimely death brought another unfortunate loss. When members of her family and a few former students gathered to clear out her apartment, they discovered numerous boxes of prints and negatives, including hundreds of photographs that Karen had taken during her summers with the Student Health Coalition. Those boxes were taken to Texas, stored in a garage, and forgotten. By the time anyone came looking for them, hoping to add Karen’s collection to the SHC archive at the University of North Carolina, the boxes had been damaged by water and discarded. Only a small number of family photographs were saved.
That wasn’t entirely the end, however. In recent years, as Karen’s aging friends have begun sorting through dusty boxes and neglected files of their own, some of her missing pictures have unexpectedly come to light like shiny stones at the bottom of a rushing stream. One here; a handful there. These photographs have added vivid touches to SHC’s multi-hued story, while helping to keep alive the memory of the humble, remarkable person who took them.