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Profile of a Digital Journalist: Karen Graham’s natural passion (Includes interview)

Field training- in basic. Karen is at the far right of the picture, on a day her unit went through tear gas. — © Karen Graham
Field training- in basic. Karen is at the far right of the picture, on a day her unit went through tear gas. — © Karen Graham

Since joining Digital Journal in September 2013, Karen Graham, a resident of Richmond, Virginia, has written more than 600 articles for the network. Her articles focus on environmental and historical themes, from the effect of climate change on the world’s food supply to the discovery that Easter Islanders made contact with the outside world a lot earlier than expected.

She was given the status of Editor-at-Large for Environment news earlier this year.

Her dedication and passionate defence of her causes has deep roots in her life experience — with decades in medical service, a time owning her own business and even meeting an American president.

Born April 3, 1945 in Oakland, Calif., Graham didn’t truly embrace journalism until much later in life. But she certainly wasn’t idle before that happened — far from it.

The first of four children, Graham credits the beginning of her curiosity to a children’s Book of the Month club her mother signed her up for when she was in the first grade. Since then, she’s been a voracious reader up to the present. She says she enjoys reading work by Clive Cussler but she reads historical texts and biology books too.

Columbia  California  where Karen Graham grew up. Taken in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mounta...

Columbia, California, where Karen Graham grew up. Taken in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Karen Graham

Her curiosity for all things environmental and historical — often the focus of her articles on Digital Journal — started early too. Growing up in California and Florida, she found herself looking for frogs in Lake Okeechobee, Florida and later fishing for trout in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

“People talk about the mountains,” Graham says in an interview. “But I say, ‘Until you have seen the Sierra Nevadas range you haven’t.’”

While in high school in Columbia, Calif., her American History teacher piqued her interest in all things historical.

“One thing I will always remember Mr. Wallace saying was this: ‘History is like a big circle. It’s a circle of events that continues down through time, one event affecting the outcome of future events,'” Graham says. “I have never forgotten that comment, and it has proven to be true.”

In her final two years of high school, she first forayed into the medical field as an assistant to a veterinarian at the Sonora Veterinary Hospital, which is no longer running.

“He specialized in large animals. He would have to go out to a ranch or to a farm to take care of cattle and sheep,” Graham recalls. “I got a real education. At first I had decided to change from being a medical doctor to being a veterinarian because of my work with him.”

She learned a lot in those two years, and even ended up castrating two horses — the second was Dizzy, Graham’s own Apaloosa horse.

Karen Graham-Basic training in Anniston  Ala. 1963.

Karen Graham-Basic training in Anniston, Ala. 1963.
Karen Graham

Though her time in the veterinary field was valuable, she did remain focused on becoming a medical doctor. In 1963, she joined the U.S. Army. She trained as a medical technician and was then permanently stationed at the West Point Military Academy in New York, during the turbulence of the very unpopular Vietnam War.

“Although I was against us being in what I perceived as a winless war, I still had to come to a compromise with my own way of thinking,” she says. “I remember we were told not to wear our Class-A uniforms when we went on pass to NYC because of the ardent dislike for the military.”

She treated cadets and military personnel, often dealing with those who contracted malaria while in Vietnam. It wasn’t all bad, though, as she was able to meet former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. Because she was the officer in charge of her medical team, she got to draw the president’s blood and make sure he wasn’t sick.
“I remember how I made sure my uniform was stiffly starched, and my shoes and brass polished to a high shine,” she says. She describes him as looking just like he did in the newsreels and pictures, all smiles and friendliness. “I was almost tongue-tied and didn’t know what to say, it was the first time I met a president,” she adds.

Field training- in basic. Karen is at the far right of the picture  on a day her unit went through t...

Field training- in basic. Karen is at the far right of the picture, on a day her unit went through tear gas.
Karen Graham

Despite her role in the army, she plays it down.

“I always feel a little funny. I was in the army but I didn’t fight any wars or battles,” she says. “Those are the guys who really deserve our thanks. The guys who fight for freedom or democracy. I was just the hired help in the background.”

In 1984  Karen opened a pet store.

In 1984, Karen opened a pet store.
Karen Graham

After her army service, she spent 20 years as the head of histology at the Pulaski Community Hospital. She quit her job there in 1984, however, when her husband had a series of strokes. She took care of him, promising to never put him in a nursing home. Wanting to give him something to look at, she bought an aquarium and some fish at a local Wal-Mart. The fish quickly died, however, and the staff were baffled as to why. It inspired her to then open a pet store in a large, unused building that she was able to rent for just $200 a month. It specialized in saltwater and freshwater fish, birds and reptiles. She made a point of not selling any birds that had been wild-caught; only birds that had been raised humanely were acceptable.

The first parrot Karen have ever owned. Moe was a wild-caught she rescued from a cruel owner. After ...

The first parrot Karen have ever owned. Moe was a wild-caught she rescued from a cruel owner. After a year in her care, Moe was talking. Karen’s daughter says he sounded just like Karen.
Karen Graham

She also spent time on Pulaski’s economic development board as vice president. She helped implement several yearly city events to help revitalize the downtown area, including a yearly model car show and a twice-a-year sale.

The last job Karen held outside her home  as a chef at an assisted-living facility.

The last job Karen held outside her home, as a chef at an assisted-living facility.
Karen Graham

Her pet store saw a fair amount of success but Graham closed it in the fall of 1994 as her husband’s health deteriorated. He died in 1995, when Graham then moved to Richmond, Virginia to be near her daughter. Graham worked as a chef at an assisted-living facility until she retired in 2010 due to a worsening neuromuscular problem.

It was in her retirement, where she says she was “lost, figuratively speaking,” that encouraged her to try writing.

“I read just about all of the online news channels, both local and otherwise,” she says. “I found myself commenting on many stories, and soon was answering other commenters. Several of these new-found friends suggested that I try writing.”

She started by writing fill for websites with Textbroker and then moved to Examiner, but she said the site isn’t “as big a fan of opinion articles.” A friend sent her an article on an environmental issue in 2013, which happened to be by a Digital Journal writer. The article inspired her to join the site, and she officially signed onto the network in September 2013.

As might be expected, her love of history and the environment are often the subject of her articles for Digital Journal.

“Any story that is written today has some historical significance,” Graham says. “The landing on a comet is another good example of what I mean. Space flight and the quest to find answers to what is out there, and how the universe came into being, these and other questions have a historical background that I find alluring.”

As for her passion for green living:

“The environment is something I hold very close to my heart. Truly, I do. This may sound maudlin, but even today, as old as I am, I still can look across a mountain valley in the fall, or stand in the lapping waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and I am amazed and humbled by it all. When the reality of what we have done to this good Earth hits me, I am angry, and disheartened. One of the good things I have done in my life is to make my family, and my granddaughters, aware of, and champions for the environment. If I can change just one person’s thinking, then I have succeeded.”

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