Karen James: Strength Through Loss

By Jane Slater, CBS 11 News

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – From the moment Karen James first met hiking enthusiast Kelly James, she knew she was in love.  “He knocked my socks off.”

James said friends set them up at a party, after that they were inseparable.  It’s a story few people know.  Instead, many remember the story of how Karen lost the love of her life at the top of Oregon’s Mt. Hood.

“It’s very dreamlike, sometimes and you find yourself wondering ‘Did that really happen?’” says James.

Kelly and two other experienced hikers, Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke, found themselves caught on the mountain in one of the worst storms any of them had ever seen.  Wind gusts at the summit were nearly 90 mph and Kelly James was injured.

James says rescuers believe Hall and Cooke tucked Kelly James away in a snow cave and then set out for help, but the winds knocked them off the mountain.

Kelly James is believed to have sat in the cave alone for days, holding out hope.  He did make a few calls from his cellphone for help.  Karen was able to intercept one of those and relay his whereabouts to rescuers.

She was also able to tell Kelly “Hold on! The Christmas tree is all decorated and it’s so pretty. I can’t wait for you to see it. Stay Awake! I love you.”

It would end up being the last words she would ever utter to her husband.  Kelly James was found in the snow cave a few days later, the other two have still never been found.

“I just look back and try to be grateful for what I had and not bitter about what I lost.”

Karen says there was a time she didn’t think she would ever want to return to Oregon or even see Mt. Hood, but she recently took a trip there in October.

“I wanted to change my opinion of Mt. Hood and be able to see it’s beauty as Kelly saw it, and not be afraid of it as the icy monster it was.”

Karen was in Oregon to speak at a Women of Faith conference and share her story of tragedy and moving on with faith.  It was at that conference she said she was finally able to say “thank you” to the men and women who helped recover Kelly James’ body.

With her husband gone, Karen says a lot has changed but her bond with Kelly’s four grown children is even stronger, and so is her faith.

She often uses her artwork to express her loss, and even showed CBS 11 one very personal painting she did before Kelly’s death, a person who can be seen chilling in the cold alone.

“It just gives me chills now. Kelly loved it, but it’s just so cold now, I think because he died of hypothermia.”

Karen will not sell that painting, but she does use other works to raise money for her new passion: raising money for children in Africa.

Fifty percent of all her sales go towards the “If you knew” non-profit group she and four other Dallas women have started. In partnership with World Vision, their goal is to raise money to build water wells in African communities.

“I just go back and go ‘I couldn’t save Kelly in the snow cave but all those babies we are going to be able to save with something as simple as clean water.’ It makes me happy to get up in the morning.”

In the midst of her grief, Kelly James said she has managed to dig down, find inner strength and a new purpose-one that happens to run as deep as a well in Africa.

“I try to live my life in a way that will make him proud,” said James.

For more information on If You Knew and the water well effort visit their website – http://ifyouknew.org/

  • Sandra

    I guess Im not understanding something…. I understand that you lost a loved one, someone you will always hold dear in your heart, I can understand the paintings to remember your loved one, but what I dont understand is that your donating your proceeds to help in Africa, you live here in America, why dont you put those proceeds on the homefront, I look at it like this, did Africa come over here and HELP with 9/11 or even Hurricane Katrina ??

    • Susan

      That’s a limited worldview, Sandra. There is plenty of money in the US to help both domestic and abroad. Just research it yourself. In DFW alone there are 4,000 opportunities for the poor to receive help. In Africa, there are none.

  • Jeanette

    What about Kelly James’ children? Was money raised to help them since their Dad didn’t provide a legacy for them? I knew Kelly for more than 20 years and while he was an interesting man, he left a trail of broken hearts & promises to his first wife, the mother of 3 of his children and to his one of many girlfriends, especially the mother of his 4th child. And what about those other 2 climbers? Was money raised to help their families? And how did they those two really die? What about the cut rope, the deep tracks in the snow & Kelly moving to another cave?
    Just some questions.

  • Jeanette

    Also there are hundreds of organizations, churches & groups already helping African children, providing wells, food, clothing & other services. And there are many mega churches & groups all over the U.S. that furnish wells for African children including Samaritan’s Purse, Rod Parseley & James Robison, and many more. Here in Dallas there are local organizations & charities that are desperately needing funds to minister & help hundreds of terminally ill children as well as many poor families that do not have access to help. I serve on the Board of one that needs funds that is within 10 miles of this lady’s home. And I use to beg seminary students to go a few blocks to help the needy but they were going to Africa because it looked good.
    Sorry, but I think some of this foundation should funnel its funds & efforts into helping what is close to them as well.

  • Tom

    I think this lady’s story is very nice. I too fail to see the link between her loss and how she is trying to help the folks in Africa. Could she just be trying to stir up a little intrest in her art? Can’t fault her for that, but…….THIS IS NOT NEWS! Has Chanell 11’s management decided to provide “filler” for it’s newscasts? I only watch for the news or for human interest stories that are compelling and timely, like the WWII vets being treated to a flight to DC to see the memorial. Not for this drabble! Come on Channel 11, give us hard news, not self-promotion!

  • Joe

    What an incredible job! Over 2 million dollars in less than a year!? That’s awesome. And for the poorest of the poor no less. This world needs more people like you. I read the other day that 885 million people in our world STILL don’t have access to clean water. That’s crazy! More people need to know about this crisis. Thank you and keep it up! Don’t let cynical, negative people discourage what’s being done

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