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Alicia Watson
Special to The Express

What would Karen do?” the students pondered, as they prepared to set up LPC’s brand new Botany room.

The room was part of the new science building designed largely by their recently retired Biology Professor, Karen Pihl. With her laser focus on student needs, and precise attention to detail, Pihl had created an ideal learning environment. In arranging the new space, her students aimed to follow her lead.

Though students today routinely see her image etched in bronze, few recognize the smiling face of Pihl, whose honorary plaque adorns the east wall of Science Building 1850. Yet many benefit from her lasting legacy.

Like the school’s two science buildings, the state of the art Greenhouse, the Herbarium and LPC’s respected Biology program.

To recognize Pihl’s prolific legacy, Chabot Community College District has awarded her its highest honor — the 2013 Reed Buffington Award. The award recognizes achievement of excellence in education, and is given to just one district faculty member each year.

“Karen contributed in so many, many ways,” said Pihl’s colleague Nan Ho, who nominated her for the award. “She was a natural for this nomination.”

Pihl joined LPC’s Science Department in 1976, a year after the campus first opened. One of just two biology instructors, she advanced the program from its nascent infancy to one of the largest in the science department. She also created the Botany program, and was pivotal in the planning and design of LPC’s first dedicated science building in the 1990s, and the second one, completed in 2012.

But Pihl’s top priority was always the students, Ho said. “She was very passionate about teaching.”

In her 35 years at LPC, Pihl taught and mentored more than 3500 students, developing curriculum and integrating new technologies along the way.

“She had very high standards for the students,” said Gerry Gire, who credits the academic foundation set by Pihl for her students’ continuing success. “Our Biology students do really well when they go on to Davis or Berkeley or anywhere else,” the Science Education Technician said.

Pihl’s former student Gary Wilkes agrees. “I can tell you for sure that the Biology, the Botany, the Zoology here and the Chemistry, were just way, way above and beyond what we did (at Cal State Eastbay).”

Yet of all her accomplishments, it’s the hard-won Greenhouse that Pihl cherishes most. For decades she had wanted such a facility for student learning.

“But she had to really fight for the Greenhouse,” Biology instructor Barbara Zingg said.

Even after it was included in plans for the new science building, it did not come easily. “Whenever there was a cost overrun, they would try to get rid of it,” Lab Technician Cindy Black said. “It was the first thing to go on the chopping block. She really fought for it.”

“Indeed it was a battle,” Pihl said with a smile. “Every time I would go to a planning meeting, I’d always check all the drawings to make sure the greenhouse was still on there.”

According to Black, it was Pihl’s “pleasant persistence” that ultimately won the battle.

The soft-spoken Pihl acknowledges her low-key style.

“I’m kind of shy,” she said. “I was an only child and my Mom — she used to talk for me. People would say, ‘oh Karen, how’re you doing?’ And she would say ‘oh, she’s fine!‘” Pihl chuckled at the memory.

“She was very outgoing, and I didn’t inherit that gene,” she said with a smile.

Yet Pihl is known for her sense of humor, and ability to bring people together.

“We really miss her,” is a common lament heard within the department. “She was like the glue that bound us together,” Zingg said.

Gire recalls how Pihl mingled with everyone. “It didn’t matter if you were one of the worker bees, or one of the faculty or one of the administrators. She was very polite, and told good stories. It was always fun to be around her.”

That sense of fun is clearly evident when spending time with Pihl. Her laugher, soft yet lyrical, sounds easily and often. Especially when laughing at herself.

As in one of her stories: On an overnight field trip to South Lake Tahoe, Pihl said that she, a colleague and their students set up camp on the outskirts of town. Pihl retired early. But the students?

“Oh, they got up in the middle of the night and walked into town to the local bar,” she said, her voice rising incredulously.” Then, through a mischievous giggle: “I slept through the whole thing.

“But my colleague woke up when they came rambling back into camp,” Pihl said. “Probably when the bar closed,” she added, with feigned dismay.

Back on campus, it was Pihl and an open mic that once caused a ruckus.

Gire explained, “The faculty liked to blow off steam sometimes when they came in the supply room. So she (Pihl) comes in and she’s talking to me about the class misbehaving. All of a sudden someone said, ‘oh my God, the microphone’s on!’ You could hear the class laughing, because it was broadcasting into the classroom.

“But she always had a good sense of humor, and kind of walked back in and picked up the pieces.”

Pihl walked away from the classroom for the last time, when she retired in 2011. The next few weeks were hectic, she said, as she and her husband John downsized possessions, packed belongings and set off for their new home in Pacific Grove.

It wasn’t until days later, as she finally settled in, that it hit her.

“I’m retired,” she thought. “What do I do now?”

But that conundrum passed quickly. Now she spends time skiing in Tahoe, volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, hiking and traveling.

Still, she says, she misses her teaching days — especially the people.

“I’d still be doing it if I didn’t live two hours away,” she said.

For now, she’ll settle for long walks on the beach, scenic hikes in Carmel Valley, and an upcoming adventure in Australia.

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