Karen Lorna Colussi

1948 - 1998

Founder/Principal/Administrator of the Selkirk Montessori School (formerly Montessori Centre of Victoria)

David Colussi, husband of Karen L. Colussi wrote the following article in 1998 after Karen's death:

Now that schools are re-opening and my four children are returning to their studies, I am thinking about the role that is played by the school principal, how hard my wife worked at this time of the year, and how she fulfilled so many of her abilities in her work.

When I met Karen at the University of Windsor in 1968 I did not know that she had Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a very rare disease, of which she had the rarest type. Where the typical SMA sufferer is unable to walk and does not survive childhood, Karen was a beautiful young woman completing her degree in English and History, and I admired her walking across the campus. I realized months later that for Karen to walk was a sustained act of the will. Exactly what angle and size of step should she take if there was a curb or other obstacle? How could she best use the left or right railing of the stairs? What precise speed of step would she need make that rise? -- but all done gracefully and while conversing normally.

Doctors examining the weak, undeveloped muscles of her thigh and lumbar region always marveled that she was able to walk at all. They had great difficulty diagnosing her disease for many years after its onset at age 3. They suggested she use a cane, or preferably a wheel chair, both of which she always declined.

I have wondered, since her death, how much of her character was formed through that heroic act of walking? A habit of constant analysis to the point that planning became effortless; observing and memorizing characteristics of the environment at every moment, while most of us can afford to day dream; and having to deal with the fear of falling, which though it happened rarely, would be the consequence of any minor miscalculation.

Karen's mother and father -- both retired now -- were teachers, as was her grandfather. She wanted to follow in this tradition, and after we were married in 1970 she enrolled in Brock Teacher's College. She was always an excellent student, but when she sustained a couple of falls she was given the same kind of well-intentioned advice from her instructors as she received from doctors: that she pursue a less strenuous life.

By the time our first child was three and our second child was born, in 1977, we had settled in Victoria, BC. Karen was taking a few years off from teaching to take care of our children. However at about that time Karen and two of her friends decided to start Victoria's first Montessori elementary school. If you would like to experience a gargantuan task, I recommend that you start, from scratch, an independent non-profit school. Particularly since this school includes a pre-school, the regulations and red tape are infinite, and it is tremendously difficult to create a quality school that is still accessible to parents with a normal income.

The parent-board school opened with about 40 children in 1980, the same year that our third child was born. The school rented an old vacant building from the public school district. There were many difficulties, and the hired principal left during the first term; Karen volunteered to step in and do the job without pay. She did not draw a salary until 1991, by which time the school had grown to about 120 students.

The school then grew to a capacity of 150 students, with Karen using every square inch of the bedraggled old building. A fire in 1985 almost ended the school even though it really did not cause extensive damage - non-profit schools are pretty fragile, particularly in their early years. The local Community College (Camosun) generously proposed that the school finish out the year using some of their vacant portables, while the school sought to "repair itself." How? Karen knew every child's name, and every parent's name; she knew by heart the birth dates, medical states, and idiosyncrasies of all the children. She knew the skills, hobbies and capacities of every family in the school, as well as those of grandparents, friends, former and prospective parents. She called on all of her knowledge gracefully and seemingly effortlessly. The school survived, prospered, and in the process became a community.

At the same time the school building became too small, and was wearing out. The staff had grown to about 15 superb teachers, but it became clear that the school would die without a new building, and that the new building would need to have twice the capacity.

In the same way as Karen had suffered many misdiagnoses of SMA, she suffered misdiagnoses of her breast cancer until about four years ago. Throughout the emergency surgery, the radiation, and repeated chemotherapy, Karen planned every aspect of a new school building. She was the only one who believed it could be done.

She had the satisfaction of standing next to a wheelchair in January this year while the students performed a ceremonial groundbreaking. Our oldest son, one of the school's first graduates, has written these words for the plaque being placed on her beautiful new Selkirk Montessori school building:

This building is dedicated to Karen Colussi, co-founder and administrator of the Pacific Montessori Society 1980 to 1998. Her physical presence within this cornerstone provides a continuity between the roots she established at the initial home of the school, and the promise of continued growth in the new home she worked towards so tirelessly.

Her academic presence lives within the school and is manifest through the continued strength of the program she believed so strongly in, and in turn within each individual student who attends this institution.

Her spiritual presence reaches all of us who are brought together to use this facility - from various communities and backgrounds and for various purposes.