Buckeye Lifestyle chatted with Karen Kasich about her Central Ohio upbringing, her favorite role (Mom!), life on the campaign trail and what it really means to serve as the partner to the Buckeye State’s governor.
Through the din of a chaotic Northstar Café lunch rush, from the back of a line winding out onto the sunshine-speckled sidewalk, in dashes Karen Waldbillig Kasich. Sporting her running gear and an enviable tan, she has her auburn hair tucked into a black ballcap and a striking smile on her face. No one bats an eye.
Of course, it’s possible much of the lunchtime crowd doesn’t recognize her — or is too occupied dictating a Buddha Bowl order to look up. More likely, though, this is simply what Karen’s Westerville neighbors have gotten used to over the years: unceremonious sightings of Ohio’s seriously down-to-earth first lady.
We can all name politicos who want people to have the impression that they are the “salt of the earth,” but with Ohio’s first lady, you get the impression that none of it’s an act. Nothing about her feels like she’s trying too hard, is out-of-touch or is detached. Come to think of it, Karen Kasich might just be the most normal first lady in the nation.
Buckeye Lifestyle chatted with Karen about her Central Ohio upbringing, her favorite role (Mom!), life on the campaign trail and what it really means to serve as the partner to the Buckeye State’s governor.
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Ohio’s 69th first lady’s earliest memories are of lazy summers and football games in Upper Arlington where she was raised by parents Charles (Craig) and Leslie.
“It sounds really boring at cocktail parties, right?” she says. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Columbus.’ ‘Where’d you go to school?’ ‘Columbus.’
“But Ohio is so great. And Upper Arlington? I can’t think of a better place to have grown up.” The older of two girls, Karen was a girl scout with a strict curfew and no car, but she admittedly never missed a party. “I was always super social — some things don’t change,” she laughs. “I was always out looking for something to do.”
Karen’s mother Leslie stayed at home with the girls while her father Craig launched a successful medical manufacturing business; he founded Medex, now part of Smith’s Medical, and ran it for nearly 40 years.
When it came time for their firstborn to leave the nest, Bluegrass country called. But after a year at the University of Kentucky, Karen returned to the capital city to study communications at The Ohio State University. Her intention was to work for a public relations company for a bit before starting her own firm. “As a kid, I was just so excited to get to college; I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “But, I’ve always had this entrepreneurial spirit — I grew up the daughter of an entrepreneur. I guess I got that from him.”
But, she says, working for others was working out well. And in her first job out of college, working for a local PR outfit, 24-year-old Karen met John, a fellow Buckeye and a congressman for Ohio’s 12th district.
“I was overseeing a publication for the OSU sports information department, and I went to take pictures of some of the officials in town,” she says, smiling. “I had Governor Celeste, Jack Hanna, Senator Glenn and this guy named John Kasich on my list. “We walked into John’s office, and I just remember laughing a lot. We had a good time. But I didn’t think anything of it because he was a congressman … and I didn’t even know what a congressman did. But we had fun. That I knew.”
A few weeks later, she received an unexpected call.
“[John] called to tell me he thought the magazine came out well, and I thought, ‘Well, that was nice! None of those other people called!’ I was so clueless,” Karen laughs.
A few months after that, the congressman called again, this time to ask Karen to lunch at The Engine House. But before she had lunch, she needed an education. “I called my mom and told her I’d been asked out by a congressman,” Karen says. “She joked that I needed to go get a copy of Newsweek, because I hadn’t a clue what was going on in the world.” (Leslie sent her daughter a Newsweek subscription every Christmas from then until her passing in 2010.)
In 1997, after dating for several years while John worked between Columbus and D.C., the pair married. “He’s a great husband. He’s a great father,” she says. “And he always had that twinkle in his eye.” If you watch footage from his campaign announcement rally in July 2015, it’s easy to see how much the Governor echoes her sentiments.
“From the tips of my toes to the top of my head, I just love my wife so much,” the Governor exclaimed during his speech. In a shimmering sheath dress, Karen beamed at her husband while waving hellos to the hundreds of supporters filling the lower level of the Ohio Union. Her daughters — with obvious admiration for both parents — never left her side.
“Mom” is unquestionably the role of which the first lady is most proud. With little prompting, she gushes about Emma’s and Reese’s accomplishments — Emma is a standout on the soccer field; Reese wants to study fashion and entrepreneurship.
It was essential, she says, that the girls grew up in a normal household — or at least as normal as she and the governor could provide. They nixed living in the governor’s residence in order to keep the girls in the private school system they’d known since pre-K, and Karen made a promise not to let the ever-growing list of first lady asks — speeches, fundraisers, luncheons — get in the way of her time with her daughters.
“It’s always been more important to me to be able to be with the girls,” she says. “I call it my drivable zone — the area where I can get to the girls quickly, take them to practice or drop them off at a friend’s — and anything outside that is off-limits.”
Karen — whose last professional role was as a vice president at Gerbig, Snell, Weisheimer (now GSW Worldwide) — continued to work in healthcare PR until the couple’s twins Emma and Reese, now 17, were born.
“[GSW] was really great to me; they let me run their PR department part-time after the girls were born. That was awesome of them,” Karen says. “But I just felt like I wasn’t as good at work as I used to be, and I wasn’t as good at home as I wanted to be. There were two of them and one of me, though I can’t complain — I know I was fortunate to be able to stop working. I really wanted to be with them.”
Karen admits that she and her girls have had a pretty spectacular few years. “I’ve traveled pretty much the entire country — we spent a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire — and it’s been a privilege to have seen the country the way we’ve seen it,” she says. “The girls have definitely benefitted from it. They’ve been able to have this experience that 99 percent of people don’t get.”
That’s not to say it’s all been smooth sailing; it’s tough watching a loved one be torn apart by a rival political candidate or an anonymous internet troll. “We just don’t engage the haters,” Karen says. “It’s certainly OK to have an opinion that’s different. But when people are saying mean and nasty things? We don’t engage. We don’t get involved.”
A little faith helps, too.
“Oh, that’s huge,” Karen says. “Our faith is a big deal to us. And there’s so much that’s out of our hands.”
“The Kasichs’ faith is pretty robust,” says Father Kevin Maney, the pastor of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, who has developed a friendship with the couple over the years. “They’ve been very consistent in their assistance of the church’s various ministries.”
Now that the girls are entering their final year of high school, Karen says that she’s glad she took advantage of her time with them. “They’re leaving in a year,” she says with a hint of sadness. “It’s exciting, but I can’t get that time back.”
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Shortly after the Kasichs wed, John announced his first presidential campaign. But even after a promising, though ultimately short run, Karen was unable to anticipate a future as first lady of anything.
“You know, none of this really ever crossed my mind,” she says. “After the 2000 election, as far as I was concerned, he was going to serve a couple more years, get out of politics and into investment banking. But he wanted to run for governor to try to make the state great again, so what could I say?” It was a joint decision, of course, and not one either took lightly.
“I wasn’t going to talk him out of it. I really thought he would do a good job, but it’s hard work, running,” she says. “It was a hard race, but it was worth it.”
First lady wasn’t a natural fit for apolitical Karen, who isn’t one to seek out the spotlight. “At first, it was challenging. People were asking me to come speak at events left and right, but being first lady doesn’t mean you suddenly wake up with something to say, an agenda to share,” she says. “The challenge for me was to balance my work with where my passions naturally lie.”
And since 2011, Ohio’s children have had Karen’s wholehearted focus.
“What is most important to me is the young people of our state, and giving them the best chance they need to succeed,” she says, “whether that’s physically, emotionally, or through education. I like to say children are our most precious natural resource.” Upon learning that Ohio ranks second to last in the nation for infant mortality — the death of a living baby before his or her first birthday — Karen joined forces with Franklin County’s Infant Mortality Task Force, a community plan to reduce the rate of infant mortality by nearly 40 percent by 2020.
In 2015, she hosted the First Ladies Summit on Infant Mortality along with the wives of pastors from area churches. The summit, an educational event to offer tools for leaders to help expecting women in their communities, was slated for the same day as the governor’s presidential campaign announcement. Karen made him reschedule because his announcement could wait, but the summit could not.
She also works with Moms2B, a program launched by Ohio State University’s Dr. Patricia Gabbe to help women at high risk for infant mortality. The program helps the moms learn tools that will enable them to deliver healthy, full-term infants. Doctors, nurses, social workers, dieticians, and mobile health units are brought to each of the Moms2B seven locations. Moms in the program also benefit from fresh-cooked meals that, per Karen, are supplemented by produce grown in the vegetable garden at the Residence.
“Karen is very authentic; there’s not a lot of pretense in her,” Fr. Maney says. “John is very resistant to power. I get the feeling she’s the same way. And she has a good sense of service.”
One of Karen’s favorite projects is After-School All-Stars Ohio, a program that provides support and mentoring to elementary and middle-schoolers who don’t have a place to go once the school day ends.
“The hours between three and six p.m., I call those the witching hours,” she jokes. “If there isn’t a parent at home, and there often isn’t since many kids come from families where both parents are working late, kids often have nowhere to go. [After-School All-Stars] gives them a place to be, and it offers everything from computer lessons to personal finance lessons to enrich the kids’ lives.” Each year Karen hosts a group of All-Star ambassadors at the Governor’s Residence for lunch and a little conversation about life. “It’s certainly not that other things aren’t important to me, but I can’t speak to everything,” Karen says of her work for the kids. “I try to focus on a few important things at a time so that I’m not running in 50 different directions.”
The human trafficking epidemic — more than 1,100 minors are trafficked in Ohio each year — gets Karen’s full attention, too. She supports CATCH Court (Changing Actions to Change Habits), a specialized docket designed by Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Paul Herbert to help women arrested for prostitution instead of condemning them. Karen hosts the court’s graduation ceremony at the Governor’s Residence, where a string quartet plays “Pomp and Circumstance” for the women, many of whom have never had the opportunity to graduate from high school.
She gets Emma and Reese involved, too. Emma, who’d like to head to medical school eventually, works with Moms2B. Reese volunteers at Dress for Success. “What I’ve always told them is to find something that interests them and then find a way to give back,” Karen says.
Serving as first lady has changed her, Karen says, and definitely for the better. “I’m more compassionate than I used to be because I’ve seen so much,” she says. “Growing up in Upper Arlington and staying pretty close to home, I hadn’t been involved in a lot. I mean, I did things, but I hadn’t traveled the state and seen all the different needs and opportunities. I feel that I’m more understanding now about the fact that not everyone is coming from the same place I am.”
As for what’s next for her and her family, that’s not a question Karen’s ready or willing to answer just yet.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” she says coyly. “I don’t have an answer. Emma and Reese will be leaving for college, and then four months later, John will finish his term as governor. I don’t know what he’s going to do or what I’m going to do; it’s kind of a blank slate — but it’s exciting. Who would have ever thought,” she continues, “that I would be the first lady of the state of Ohio? My friends still get a really big kick out of it.”
First Lady of Fitness
Karen openly admits she wasn’t much of an athlete as a young woman, and though she claims her daughters get that talent from their dad’s side, she is very serious about fitness. What began as a hobby in college has become a full-blown passion for her. She’s even worked with Nationwide Children’s Hospital, After-School All-Stars and dozens of other organizations to help kids get fit. And though Karen certainly looks great, this is a passion that goes much deeper.
“Heart health is very important to me,” she says. Karen lost both parents to congenital heart disease, and her father had one of the world’s first heart bypass operations at the Cleveland Clinic in 1966. “Being active, getting and staying healthy … I can’t say enough how important that is for me and my family.”
In February, she partnered with Kroger on a heart-health initiative that brought personalized blood pressure and cholesterol screenings to each of the chain’s 198 Ohio stores at no cost. She also partners with the Ohio State University College of Nursing on a program that provides heart-health screenings during the Ohio State Fair.
Karen is a long-time runner, and she completed the Columbus Marathon in 2006 after her father passed away. She was inspired to tackle a second when her mother lost her battle with congestive heart failure in 2010.
“Oh, I wish they were still around,” Karen says. “They would have loved seeing all of this. They would have been so excited.”
An advocate for the arts
On the campaign trail during John’s first gubernatorial race, the Kasichs, who were already art lovers, were wowed by the work they found in communities large and small across the state. Karen thought that if John won, she would love to fill the governor’s residence with the work of Ohio artists.
In 2013, the first lady organized Spotlight: Featured Artists at the Ohio Governor’s Residence, a showcase of Ohio artists. Quarterly, with assistance from collaborators at the Ohio Arts Council, Karen spearheads the selection of artists for an exhibition and hosts a glittering celebration at the residence.
“It’s just such a great way to reach out to artists all over Ohio,” Karen says. “Probably 8,000 people come through the residence for one reason or another each year. That’s a lot of exposure for these artists.”
“I think (Karen) cares about Ohio’s creative sector because she knows it’s good not only for business, but also for the quality of every Ohioan’s life,” says Donna Collins, executive director of the Ohio Arts Council. “She’s smart, she’s genuine and she’s engaged. And she celebrates what’s good and right about the arts in Ohio.” Collins says the Ohio Arts Council wanted to recognize her work on the Spotlight program, as it’s one of the few of its kind in the country.
“She created that. It’s all her,” Collins says. “And when she selects an artist, it could be the most famous Ohio artist you know or someone totally unknown. It could be someone with different abilities. Everyone is welcomed and cared for the same. It’s just really beautiful.”
“We’ve been fortunate in Ohio to have first ladies who care about the cultural lives of Ohioans,” Collins adds. “Spotlight is one of the first of its kind, and I’m really hoping all future first ladies find value in it, too.”
Collins also admits she would love for the partnership with Karen to continue.
“Mrs. Kasich doesn’t need the title of first lady to do all she can,” she says. “I hope we continue to work with her, no matter what her future holds.”