Sunday, June 29, 2014

Karen Belle Tancill

Karen Belle Tancill, a Journal Times reporter for 24 years, died of Parkinson’s Disease on Sunday, June 29, 2014, at Lincoln Village Convalescent Center at the age of 72. She was born in Wauwatosa, WI, on December 9, 1941, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1964 with a degree in journalism.

She lost her mother, May Belle Caine Tancill, to breat cancer in 1945 and was raised by her father, the late John Richard Tancill. He was raised in that great baseball town, St. Louis, and passed on his love of baseball, reading and his sense of humor, sometimes puckish.

She became interested in architecture at an early age because of her parents’ love for their home, a modest Tudor Revival. As a child, her father would drive her past the elegant Tudor Revivals on Milwaukee’s north shore.

She brought that interest in architecture along with an interest in art and history when she was hired by the Journal Times in September 1967. At that time, the paper was family owned. Women then covered society, wrote up weddings and did feature stories. They interviewed the wives of political candidates but not the candidates. The size of the bride’s picture in the paper was determined by her father’s profession and which country club the family belonged to.

Tancill was the first staffer to refer to women by their last names only in second reference which raised a ruckus among the traditionalists. And when she perceived an editor to be chauvinistic, she donated $100 to the National Organization for Women, then fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

From day one at the paper, she covered art and was blessed to know and write about many of the artists who were fostered by Wustum Museum, among them Mike Jerry, Michael Monroe, Joe Wilfer and Tom Markusen, all of whom were recognized nationally or internationally.

She also interviewed Edgar Tafel who was Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentice on several of his important commissions and was an architect in his own right.

Her biggest story came in 1969 when she covered the return of Zionist leader Golda Meier to her hometown of Milwaukee.

When the Society of Professional Journalists opened its membership to women, she was among the first to join. She also held leadership positions at the local and regional level of what was then Women in Communications, Inc.

Tancill eventually evolved into covering the Caledonia Town Board and Gateway Technical College while remaining the paper’s chief entertainment reporter.

On her father’s side, Tancill was a 12th generation American, having been descended from Capt. John Browning, who arrived in Jamestown in 1619 or 1621.

Her paternal great-great grandfather was the first clerk of Ohio County, Virginia, and helped write the constitution for the new state of West Virginia. Her paternal great-grandfather was a “gold rusher.”

Her father worked with Harry S. Truman for the American Red Cross during the Depression.

On her mother’s side, Tancill was a 12th generation American. Her g-g-g-g-g grandfather Col. John Tipton served in the Virginia legislature along with Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison and ”Lighthorse” Harry Lee before moving to what is now Tennessee. There, he helped write the state’s constitution and was its first lieutenant governor. When he died in 1913, Jefferson sent condolences to the family.

Tipton’s home in Johnson City is a house museum.

A maternal great-grandfather was William Tecumseh Sherman’s horse keeper.

The onset of Parkinson’s in her early 60’s, forced Tancill to give up traditional rug hooking and needlepoint. 

Tancill loved to learn. She did that through reading, taking Rhodes Scholar classes, traveling and listening to Wisconsin Public Radio. While her reading tastes were eclectic, she leaned toward non-fiction books about the Civil War, the American Indians and current events.

Because her mother’s family lived in the Dalonega, GA, area at the time of the discovery of gold, which caused the removal of the five civilized tribes, she felt a bond with the Indians and was angry at the whites who felt all Indians were bad Indians, made and broke treaties and forced the Indians to live on marginalized lands.

Her only survivors are her four paternal cousins, Lois LaVerne Tancill of Cerritos, CA, Sandra (the late Don) of Los Gatos, CA, Linda (Jack) Venzio of Cool, CA, and Donna (Danny) Ortega of Salinas, CA, and their extended families.

She is also survived by a paternal second cousin, Don (Lorene) Adams, of Omaha, NE. With the latter, she shared a passion for genealogy. She is also survived by Wendy (Arturo) Gomez of Racine, who -- trite but true -- was like a sister to her. And she is survived by friends she has had for years, among them Joyce (the late Phillip) Dahlberg of South Milwaukee, Mary (George) Whetstone of Staatsburg, NY, Jane Croke of Shorewood, WI, Debra Crowe of Milton, FL, Yvonne (Bud) Morrison of Scottsdale, AZ, Diane (Warren) of Arlington, VA, Alice Weck of St. Paul, MN, Sharon McIlrath of Washington, D.C., Helen Schubert of Chicago, Louise and George Woiteshek of Rancho Cucamonga, CA, and Barb Williams of Janesville, WI. 

She made provisions in her will for the care of her beloved feline companions and she donated her brain to the Wisconsin Parkinson’s Foundation.

She left the bulk of her estate to the Racine Art Museum and the Tipton-Haynes Historic Site.

Per her request, there will be no funeral. She will be cremated and her cremains buried in her paternal grandparents' plot in Historic Fee Fee Cemetery in Bridgeton, MO, the cemetery in which many of her paternal ancestors are buried.

She asks that donations be made in her memory to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, TN, the Wauwatosa Historical Society or the Friends of Boerner Botanical Garden in Hales Corners, WI. She also asks that people have a chocolate custard soda on her.

803 Main St., Racine  (262) 634-7888

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