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Skidmore College
Skidmore Retirees

Sonja P. Karsen

Sonja Karsen, professor emerita of Spanish, died Jan. 12, 2013, in Rockleigh, N.J. She was 93.

Born April 11, 1919, in Berlin, Germany, Sonja became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1945. Her father, Fritz Karsen, was a co-founder of the League of Radical School Reformers and served as principal of the Kaiser Friedrich Real Gymnasium (later the Karl Marx Schule) from 1921 to 1933. With Hitler’s rise to power, he was fired in 1933, and the family left Germany for Switzerland, France, and Colombia before entering the United States in 1938.

Sonja attended the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, Colombia, before earning a B.A. degree at Carleton College in 1939. She obtained an M.A. at Bryn Mawr College in 1941 and a Ph.D. at Columbia in 1950.

She taught Spanish at Lake Erie College, the University of Puerto Rico, Syracuse University, and Brooklyn College before joining UNESCO in Paris, where she worked from 1951 to 1954, first as personal assistant to the deputy director-general, then on the Latin American desk, and finally as a member of the UNESCO Technical Assistance Mission to Costa Rica.

In 1957 Sonja joined the Skidmore faculty as an associate professor of Spanish and acting chair of the Department of Romance Languages. She continued with the College for 30 years, overseeing the department’s growth and name change to Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. She was promoted to professor in 1961. In addition to her regular teaching and department responsibilities, Sonja directed the Skidmore Summer Language School in 1966-67, coordinated the Self-Instructional Language Program in 1967, and served on a number of College committees.

The author of many papers, essays, and reviews, as well as several books, she was a specialist on Jaime Torres Bodet, who under three different Mexican presidents was secretary of education and secretary of foreign affairs. He was also a poet, and it was this aspect of his career that Sonja shared in her 1964 Faculty Research Lecture, “Jaime Torres Bodet: A Poet in a Changing World.” Paty Rubio, associate dean of the faculty and professor of Spanish, noted that it is to Sonja’s credit that Scribner Library contains several Bodet manuscripts.

Professor of English Regina Janes said Sonja “was immensely supportive of others, and very welcoming.” When Janes was researching her 1981 book Gabriel García Márquez: Revolutions in Wonderland, she sought Sonja’s help and the two became friends. “She had a reputation for being forbidding but was actually very funny and gentle,” said Janes, who remembered that Sonja “was on good terms with former students.”

Sonja’s awards and honors were numerous, and included the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques in 1964, given by the French National Ministry of Education; a Fulbright Lectureship to the Freie Universität Berlin in 1968; a series of awards from the New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers; and the Alumni Achievement Award from Carleton College in 1982.

Skidmore’s Sonja P. Karsen Prize in Spanish, presented annually to recognize the outstanding accomplishments of a senior major, was established in her honor upon her retirement in 1987.

Sonja was a prodigious traveler who visited all of the countries of western Europe and of central and Latin America, as well as Bermuda, Cuba, Canada, and Morocco. On more than one occasion, she traveled to events recognizing her father’s contribution to the field of education, and she spoke about him at a number of ceremonies.

After retiring from Skidmore, Sonja moved to New York City. A former tennis player herself, she loved to watch tennis on television, particularly the U.S. Open. She enjoyed attending the classical music programs at SPAC and visiting museums, which she supported through memberships.

Toward the end of her life, a group of current and former colleagues provided the funds to have a Spanish-speaking guest regularly visit Sonja, to maintain her connection to the language and culture that she loved.

She had no survivors.

Sonja was well known and deeply respected by alumni and colleagues for her devotion to the College over many years. She will be missed.