Karin Larson never set foot on Berea College’s campus, and yet she made the largest individual bequest ever left to Berea College. Throughout her 20-year partnership with the College, Larson was inspired to support students of humble origins like her own, and her gift to the College endowment bolsters the institution’s Tuition Promise Scholarships.
Raised in a Swedish American Baptist family in Minnesota, Larson was a first-generation college student. Her mother did not graduate high school, and her father did not study past eighth grade. This did not hold her back from graduating with a business and international relations degree from the University of Minnesota. Larson’s college education equipped her with the skills and confidence to move across the country to California, where she was hired as a secretary at Capital Group, a financial services company. She rose rapidly through the ranks of the company, becoming the first female research director and then chair of Capital International Research, Inc. Along the way, Larson made sure to train and develop future talent who could contribute to their communities.
“Karin was a mentor to so many at Capital,” said William Robbins, partner with Capital Group and a current Berea College trustee. “She led by example in both her professional and personal life, and her support of Berea was a big part of the latter. I was inspired, as were a number of other colleagues, to follow in her footsteps and make Berea College a priority in giving of both time and treasure.”
A genetic disease caused her to lose her ability to walk, but a wheelchair didn’t keep her down. “She just had an attitude of there may be barriers, but barriers are made to be broken,” said Amanda Forsyth, Larson’s grandniece. “And she did it with respect and kindness.”
Throughout her life, Larson was intent on helping students of limited financial means get an education, concerned their careers and life goals might otherwise be jeopardized. She gave selflessly to many educational institutions across the country with a mission to support under-privileged youth through her philanthropic projects.
The message of Berea’s Great Commitments also caught Larson’s attention. All the way from California, she established the Karin Larson Endowment Fund in 2007 to provide tuition support for Berea’s students. Believing Berea’s endowment to be the cornerstone of the College’s mission, Larson was committed to growing her fund for the future. She also sponsored the Adult Simulation Laboratory in Berea’s Margaret A. Cargill Natural Sciences and Health building, helping the Nursing Department retain its position as the best nursing program in the state of Kentucky. In making this gift, Larson reminisced about her mother.
“She wanted to be a nurse but was never able to do that,” Larson said in 2017. “In those days, you were lucky if you graduated from high school. [This gift] was my way of honoring her ambitions.”
“What a testament she is to the transformative power of education—a first-generation student goes on to amazing success and then generously supports a school that gives the same opportunity to the next generation,” said Berea College President Lyle Roelofs, who was privileged to have visited Larson at her home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. He praised her humility and generosity and her desire to witness others become successful like herself.
“I was really so blessed in my career and had been given so many opportunities,” Larson said. “My parents didn’t even graduate from high school and were blue-collar workers. [I have] the ability to support people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to college—that’s important.”