Courage, Conviction and Kindness

For Tom Carns it is a Labor of Love and Legacy

Photo: Mike Felts

Tom Carns smiles with his whole body. It’s not fake. It’s not the kind of smile a person can affect. Rather it is him, a natural extension of something within, something built years ago. And he smiles a lot. And looks you in the eye. And calls you by your first name. He always uses your name. He wants you to know that he is paying attention, that he is with you. And his smile – it’s there too, like a third party in a private conversation.

It’s easy these days, when a person smiles like that, listens like that, calls you by your first name, to be cynical; to assume there’s malicious intent. A snake in the grass. A used car salesman. But that’s not Carns. That’s not his smile. And when you listen to him tell his story, his life story, his story about a serious young man who met a beautiful caring woman, fell in love with her, married her and, suddenly and without fairness, lost her, it’s amazing that he smiles at all.

Carns shares his story freely, with ease. He’s probably done it a thousand times in the last nine years, but it doesn’t come across as rehearsed or forced. He talks about his wife, the girl he met when studying for his undergrad at Xavier University, and how she lit up the world around her, like a sports fan recalling being in the stands for the greatest game ever played. He talks about Karen as if he thinks, no he knows, how blessed he was to have ever met her.

“I’ll tell you one thing, I am the luckiest guy in the world,” says Carns. We’re sitting in a restaurant in Mason, where he lives, and he’s talking about Karen, his college sweetheart and wife, the mother of his four children. He’s talking about how they met and fell in love, how they balanced each other – he, the serious business student; her, the girl who lit up a room not only with her striking looks but with the way she touched people. He’s talking about her funeral. “She touched so many people. When we had her service, there were people lined up out the door. All the seats were taken. Nobody could get inside. That’s how much people loved her.”

Karen Carns felt like she owed people her effort. When she was going into her senior year of high school, Catholic school, her father became extremely ill and was unable to work. She was going to lose the life she knew – her friends, her school, the only life she had ever known. But then an anonymous benefactor showed up without her asking. This person paid her tuition, helped her and her family in a real time of need. That the person never revealed themselves to her only made the urge to pay it forward that much stronger.

So that’s how she lived her life. She helped people – with a smile, with a kind ear, with her time, talent and treasure. And when Tom met her, she touched him in a way he could not have understood, not as an undergrad, not really all these many years later.

Founding a Legacy

They married and Karen influenced Tom, she helped him understand the need to give back, to help. In 1991, they started Carns Coats for Kids – collecting coats to give to underprivileged kids around Christmas time. This was their first act of giving back.

“It started with my bonus check,” says Carns, 49, and a financial planner with Morgan Stanley. “We saw an opportunity to teach our kids the true meaning of Christmas.”

The kids used the bonus to buy coats and gave them to the Society of Saint Vincent DePaul. Tom thought that might be it, their big give, but Karen had bigger dreams.

In addition to what became an annual coat drive, she wanted to pay back her anonymous benefactor by working to make sure no private secondary school student lost their chance to continue their education because they lost a parent or a parent got sick and couldn’t pay the bills. She wanted to be there the way someone had been there for her. And Tom wanted to be right there with her.

After listening to parents in a small Cincinnati parish talk about the rising cost of Catholic education, after hearing their concerns, Karen and Tom decided to get involved. It started small. They proposed using a parish golf outing to establish a scholarship fund for students in need, students who by all rights deserved to be where they were but stood to lose their school, the education their parents’ valued because of something they couldn’t control.

In 2000, Karen was diagnosed with leukemia. She died 15 months later and, initially Carns was devastated. Here he was, a successful financial advisor with a great family and in less than two years, he lost the love of his life, the reason for his life. He thought about giving in. He didn’t want to be a single parent. He wanted Karen there with him. And he wanted to be a good dad- he worried continuing work with the foundation – which had been established while Karen was still alive – might upset them.

He was wrong.

“The kids really pushed me to keep going,” he says. “The foundation was a part of who their mom was, it was a part of her, and they wanted to hold on to it.”

So that’s just what he did. He kept going. He formalized that parish golf outing. He changed the foundations name to the Karen Carns Foundation. He used his connections to Xavier – where he met Karen- to start a winter fundraiser with an event at a basketball game.

And he was having success. The foundation was helping kids who were effected by a change of life – a loss of a parent, sickness, disability – the same way someone helped Karen. He put his financial planning skills to use – making contacts, crunching numbers, meeting with widows and widowers who were just barely holding on to help them keep their children’s hopes alive.

But he was just holding on too. He was trying to do it all himself and with the help of some old friends here and there.

“We have never not been able to help someone after we helped them initially,” Carns says, a measure of pride in his voice. “But there were a lot of times when I had to call my friends and say, ‘hey can you donate $500, I’m getting pretty close here.’”

It was only after stalwartly trudging on for a number of years that Carns finally admitted that, if he were going to continue with the foundation, he was going to need some help. And when he asked, he found there were people – friends, people from church, community and business leaders – who were more than willing. He established a board of directors and found someone to help with the day-to-day responsibilities as an executive director. The impact was immediate. The weight of carrying his wife’s legacy was now being shared and to-date, this is the best year the Karen Carns Foundation has ever had.

Supporting Young Futures

Since 1999, the year the foundation was started, the Karen Carns Foundation has provided more than $275,000 in tuition assistance for students in private elementary and secondary schools. The Carns Coats for Kids campaign has donated more than 8,500 new coats to children in need, including 580 last year alone.

Carns has met dozens of students, on his own time, apart from his responsibilities at work, apart from his responsibilities at home. He has heard their stories. He has helped their parent or parents get a grip on their finances and made sure their kids were able to stay in school. He doesn’t brag about this, doesn’t boast. In fact, when you talk to him about the foundation and campaign’s accomplishments, he seems a little restless. You talk numbers to him – a man whose career is built around talking numbers – and he gives you a sense that you are missing the point. It’s not about dollars, it’s about impact. It’s not about tuition and budgets, it’s about their stories. And always, it is about Karen.

There are no pie charts or graphs in the literature for the foundation. There are just stories. Karen’s story. The story of a senior at Ursala Academy who wants to go to college, but her dad is diagnosed with lung cancer and is unable to work. The Karen Carns Foundation is paying the balance of her tuition for her senior year. Or the Moeller student who lost his dad in 2008 after an 11 year battle with cancer. The foundation paid his tuition and he’s now on the honor roll. Or the family with three girls – third grade to a junior in high school. The father died suddenly at 42 and the girls were going to drop out of school. They don’t have to now.

But the one that really touches a reader is the letter from one of the students who has received assistance, the letter that shows just how devastating the loss of a parent can be.

“I want to thank you for the scholarship I received two years ago,” it starts. “When my father died, my life seemed empty. My mother could not be there for me since she was in so much pain. The first time she was able to really talk to me was to tell me I had to leave my school because she could not afford it. I felt I lost my father and mother and now would lose all my friends and teachers who know how bad I hurt. I would not have been able to handle this. It is awesome to think total strangers would give me [tuition]. I’m a stronger person now and promise to help others and be the best I can be. You will be proud of me.”

So maybe that’s the reason Tom Carns smiles with his whole body. Because he knows something about the kind of people these kids will become. He was married to one, the love of his life. And he lost her. But she never really went away. And maybe he smiles because that’s what she would want him to do. That’s what she wanted everyone to do.

In a note she wrote for the program of her own funeral, Karen Carns asked the people who loved her to smile. She wrote:

“Choose to be happy. Look for the good. Surround yourself with those you love – and smile.”