Karen Strong photo

Karen StrongKaren Strong

Karen Strong photo

August 2023 ~

The railroad guy couldn’t say he didn’t have it coming. Karen Strong (Marshall, 1973) only had one rule, and he had broken it countless times on just this ride alone.

The deal was, “Strongy” would load the railroad crew into the company-provided Chevy Suburban (aka a “crummy”) and transport its members to wherever the train happened to be when the crew they were replacing reached the end of their 12-hour shift. They, in turn, would moderate their language during the trip.

“Railroaders have such potty mouths,” says the part-time driver, who learned a thing or two about potty mouths — and how to deal with them — over the course of a 37-year career as a Portland middle school P.E. teacher. “I was always telling these guys, ‘You’re acting like you’re 5.’”

An important difference being 5-year-olds typically can count on someone to drive them around no matter what they’re saying. This railroader, on the other hand and on this particular evening, wound up standing on the shoulder of I-5 watching the taillights of Strongy’s crummy disappear into the dark night.

“This guy was using the ‘f’ word constantly,” she remembers. “At one point I told him, ‘I’m sick of your mouth.’ But he still didn’t stop. So, I pulled over and said, ‘Get out.’”

That he actually got out tells you much of what you need to know about Karen Strong, the 2015 PIL Hall of Fame inductee. And if that doesn’t, she’ll tell you herself. “My attitude now is, if you get me pissed off, watch out,” she says with a laugh that exposes her good-natured personality while doing nothing to mask the truth of her statement.

No doubt there are countless former high school volleyball, basketball and softball players throughout Oregon who will attest to the fact it does not pay to get on the wrong side of Strong. When her days as a decorated high school and collegiate athlete ended, and after she’d earned her teaching master’s degree, she turned to officiating, working softball games for more than 20 years and basketball for more than 15.

She was the first woman to referee a boys state basketball tournament and, over the course of a volleyball officiating career spanning more than 30 years, she officiated five state volleyball championships.

Strong still serves as a head ref for volleyball matches, in fact, even though a long, tough recovery from knee replacement surgery prevents her from climbing up to the umpire’s stand, meaning she has to work courtside from a wheelchair.

Strong is just happy to still be “in the game” she used to love playing, which she did well enough to earn a spot in the Portland State University Hall of Fame as well as the PIL’s. She grew up tall and enthralled with the game of basketball but had no outlet to demonstrate her affection for, and skill in, the sport other than in pick-up games with the neighborhood boys.
“I was a little tom boy in a southeast Portland neighborhood on Market Street, and there was another tom boy the next street over,” she recalls. “We’d go to the park every day and play with all the boys, shoot baskets, play Over the Line. I played basketball pretty much 24/7.”

When she wasn’t playing, Strong would sit on the sidelines and study how the boys played.

“That’s how I learned to play,” she says, while also giving credit to her P.E. teachers at Binsmead Elementary School, Fred Sandau and Dale Langley, for inspiring her to succeed.

By the time she reached sixth grade, Strong was good enough, and well-past tall enough, to play on the eighth-grade girls team. “This was in the 60s when girls were only allowed to play on one half of the court and were limited to three dibbles,” she says.

It was also a time when there were only three officially sanctioned girls high school sports – swimming, track and field and tennis. By the time Strong was at Marshall, she was only able to play intramural volleyball and basketball. Her only “official” interleague competition came when she joined the tennis team.

During her senior year, Strong and her partner, Diane Carroll, won the PIL doubles championship, in the process becoming the first girls doubles team in the six-decade history of Marshall High to qualify for the state tournament.

Before that triumph, however, came tragedy. When Strong was 15 she lost her mother to breast cancer.

“I was a mess,” she says. “But a teacher, Irene Grace, took me under her wing and helped me through. We still talk to this day.”

At home, it was Strong who was suddenly being relied on for strength and support.

“My older brother had gone off to Viet Nam and I had twin sisters who were 12,” she says. “My dad was also a mess and told me I had to step up and help him and my sisters.”

In time, Karen’s home responsibilities would expand to include “screening” women her father would date. “He’d take me to a woman’s house for dinner then ask me what I thought of her. I’d usually go, ‘Oh, no.’”

(That turned to “Oh, yes” when her dad’s future wife, Helen Johnson, was introduced to the family in 1977. “She had two kids who merged with our family and from then on she was our rock,” says Strong.)

One day as Strong’s days as a high schooler were coming to an end, a ’57 Thunderbird pulled up to her house and a woman came to the door asking for her.

“It was the Portland State womens basketball coach (Oma Blankenship),” she remembers. “She wanted to know if I wanted to play college basketball and said she heard I was pretty good. I told her I wasn’t that good.”

Others disagreed. Strong was good enough to earn what she says is the first full-ride scholarship given to a woman at an Oregon college. And she proved her worth by playing varsity basketball at PSU for years, making the all-regional team three years, being named All-American as a junior and making it to the last round of cuts for the 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympics team.

Along the way, during the 1975-76 season at PSU the 6’-4” center averaged a school-record 22.1 points and 14.7 rebounds a game. The next season, she averaged 19.1 points and 14 rebounds.

Even she now admits her earlier assessment of her own skills was off target, something the sharpshooter rarely was on the court.

“I was pretty good,” she now admits. “I had both left- and right-handed hook shots. I scored 47 points one game (a school record) and 44 another, and this was before the three-point line. After every practice, I would take 500 shots. When I tried out for the Olympics, I was making 500 baskets. Not just shooting 500; making that many.”

Basketball was Strong’s best sport at PSU, but it wasn’t her only one. She also played four years of both softball and volleyball. As a senior, she made the All-Regional team in the latter and, during her sophomore year, was on the PSU squad that finished seventh in the nation. For good measure, Strong also played a year of field hockey.

Small wonder she was named PSU’s Co-Athlete of the Year as a senior.

Despite all the accomplishments she achieved in 13 seasons of sports, Strong doesn’t have a single varsity letter to show for it.

“They only gave those to men,” she says. “It was a different time. We had to drive to all away games, even places like Montana. I remember taking a Greyhound bus to UCLA. At Portland State, the women had to go through the men’s locker-room to get taped for practice. We had to yell first to make sure all the guys were covered,” she adds, laughing.

Still, she says, “I had a great run. It was a lot of fun.”

Strong adds that she was honored and humbled be her inductions into both the PIL and PSU halls of fame, the latter occurring in 2010. “I was sort of shocked when I learned about making the PIL Hall of Fame. Because I mostly played intramurals, I didn’t really win anything (well, there was that doubles championship thing). I wasn’t ever really a star. But I learned by having a work ethic and by playing with boys who were better than me and through my own failures.”

The woman who has been known at various points in her life as Stretcher, Big K, Special K and now Strongy is still having fun – for the most part.

She’s been through the ringer, physically, since October 2022, recovering from a second surgery required because of an infection that developed after her knee-replacement procedure the previous May. That kept her off her feet for 100 days, and the road back has been long and difficult.

“It kind of wears on you but it makes you look at yourself and how you use your time,” Strong says. “You get so programmed thinking you have to do this or that. But now, if I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it. I love retirement now, and it’s a good thing I do. Because if I was still teaching, I’d probably lose my job.”

It was after COVID that Strongy decided to take the driving job with the railroad. Her brother and father were both railroad men. (Her dad died of congestive heart failure three years after retiring).

“I’ve been doing the railroad thing for two years,” she says. “It’s fun. I’ve learned a lot and met some great people.”

She’s left a lot of impressions on impressionable minds over the years. Most of them students, many of whom have reconnected with her to thank her for that. “I recently got on Facebook and have reconnected with some of my students. Recently one of them told me, ‘Thanks for being an ass to me’,” she says, laughing. “I told her, ‘You were a thorn in mine, but I treated everyone equally’.”

She won’t get any argument about that from a railroad guy with a potty mouth and the memory of a dark night on a busy freeway he won’t soon forget.

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