Bob Saar | for The Hawk Eye
Karen Lee Clay was a bright spot in many southeast Iowa lives.
Born in 1944, Clay died Dec. 16. She married Robert Douglas Clay in Burlington in 1977.
Clay was a tenor — yes, a tenor — in Burlington’s famed Bel Canto Chorale singing group, organized as the Burlington Choir in 1968 by Bob Bogaart, the minister of music at First Presbyterian church. Renamed Bel Canto in 1967, Roger Hatteberg served as director for 27 years, from 1983 until 2010.
Bel Canto is Italian for “beautiful singing” and refers to the Italian-originated vocal style that prevailed throughout most of Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
“In a nutshell, Karen was a unique character,” Hatteberg said. “When I met her for the first time, she told me she was a tenor. I thought, ‘Oh, really?’ But she was right: Karen was one of the very rare female tenors I have known.”
“Musically, it was great standing near her in Bel Canto,” soprano Gloria DeVilbiss said. “I loved it when she would show her dislike for a piece Roger selected. She made no bones about it and everyone would chide her. When we got it learned she would say, ‘Well, I guess it’s not so bad.'”
But Clay was no token female tenor.
“With her, Bryan Schulte, Terry Strother, and Dudley Korf in the front row, I didn’t have a chance,” Hatteberg said. “They would chuckle and not point out my inconsistencies and poor directions, but that chuckle told it all: ‘Yah, right!'”
“We were first tenors,” Bel Canto’s Tim Ahern said. “Brian Schulte and his minion were the second tenors; they sat behind us; Karen sang tenor with us. When the men went out and sang, she’d always sing with us. It was like the ‘Bel Canto Guys and Karen.’ In that regard, she was always just one of the guys.”
Ahern, who served briefly as director when Hatteberg retired, said it was hilarious to perform next to Clay.
“I sat between her and Terry Strother, which was an adventure in itself,” Ahern said. “Both of them had a wonderful sense of humor. Sometimes I felt like a schoolboy because they were ready to pounce on Roger at the first opportunity and give him a hard time, and I was kind of in the middle of that.”
“She was a lovely person; always friendly, always had a smile on her face, always willing to help others,” Strother said.
Clay owned and operated Karen Clay Insurance Agency from 1989 until 2006. But she cut her teeth at Hazell Agencies Insurance for 20 years after Art Hazell hired her in 1969.
Clay attended Yarmouth School through 11th grade and graduated from Mediapolis High School in 1962; she was an avid 6-on-6 basketball player and became a fan and supporter of the Southeastern Community College Blackhawks menʼs basketball team, attending every home game she could.
“Karen sang with the guys when we did the national anthem for the Burlington Bees or SCC men’s basketball, and she loved being part of the gang,” Hatteberg said.
“The thing I remember most is Karen’s love of people,” DeVilbiss said. “She was always excited to see you and interested in what was going on in your life.”
Clay was of the Baptist faith. She was a devoted and active member of the Burlington Kiwanis Club — she had 22 years of perfect attendance — and her two favorite Kiwanis events were the annual pancake breakfast and Kids Shopping Day at Target.
Clay was a Kiwanis president, a member of the SCC Booster Club, served on the board of Aspen Grove Cemetery and was an Iowa Hawkeyes season ticketholder.
She filled her bucket list goal of visiting all 50 states.
Ahern said many people attended Clay’s service on Dec. 21 at Lunning Funeral Chapel in Burlington.
“I heard the visitation the night before was packed; we decided to wait and go to the funeral,” Ahern said. “There were a lot of folks there, a lot of friends and family and well-wishers, but we didn’t feel like we were packed like sardines. All the people you’d expect to be there were there.”
“Karen had a great sense of humor and was fun to be around,” Ahern summed up.
“Loved her laugh! We will miss her,” DeVilbiss said.
“She was a tour de force and a joy to know,” Hatteberg said.
“She was a great person,” Strother said. “I loved her and her family both.”
Karen Clay sang a high, clear note in the song of life.
Survivors include husband Robert Douglas Clay of Burlington; daughter Kelli (Patrick) Swing of Seagoville, TX; sons Je (Sue) Strause and Derrick (Kim) Clay of Burlington; grandchildren Garrett Strause and Halliday Swing; great grandchildren Delia, Gunnar, Emma, and Frankie; sister Patti (Rick) Van Winkle of Mediapolis; sister-in-laws Bobbie Jean Tucker of Waco, TX; Shirley Martin and Ruby Gray of San Francisco, CA; many nieces, nephews, and cousins.
A memorial has been established for Southeast Iowa Regional Hospice. To send flowers to the family of Karen Lee Clay, find her obituary on the Lunning website at lunningfuneralchapel.com.