On July 11, Junior Achievement of Southern Colorado will dedicate its building on West Colorado Avenue, naming it the Karl & Mary Flemke Center for Free Enterprise.
The name couldn’t be more appropriate. Karl and Mary were key Colorado Springs community leaders in the last quarter of the 20th century, guiding major private educational nonprofits. Without Karl, Junior Achievement wouldn’t have moved its national headquarters to Colorado Springs in 1982. Without Mary’s leadership in the tumultuous years from 1989-2000, the Colorado Springs School might not have survived and thrived.
Born in Connecticut in 1931, Karl joined Junior Achievement in 1958 as executive director in New Bedford, Mass., the same year that he and Mary were wed. His decision-making skills were evident in both choices. Their happy marriage lasted a lifetime, and he stayed with JA for his entire career, becoming national president and CEO in 1982.
In 1987, Karl led the relocation of Junior Achievement’s national headquarters from Stamford, Conn. to Colorado Springs.
“I went out to New York to make a presentation,” recalled El Pomar CEO Bill Hybl. “Karl was the decision maker and he was receptive to coming to Colorado Springs, even though he was from the Northeast. Dave Sunderland gave them the site [for their headquarters], Pete Coors was helpful and El Pomar was involved as well.”
The move was transformational for Colorado Springs.
“It really put Colorado Springs on the map for national nonprofits” Hybl said. “It brought us to a whole new level. For example, Dinah Shore was on the JA board, and we hosted the Dinah Shore International Golf Tournament for several years, which brought people here from all over the country.”
Founded in 1919 in Springfield, Mass. as the Boys’ and Girls’ Bureau of the Eastern States League, JA’s original purpose was to educate kids moving from the country to the then-booming cities of the industrial Northeast about free enterprise. That model quickly expanded into today’s volunteer-driven economic education model, which took root nationwide. Under Karl’s leadership, JA became the largest economic education program in the world, quadrupling in size. Karl initiated then-innovative K-12 in-school JA programs and oversaw expansion of the organization to 80 countries.
JA first came to Colorado Springs in 1954. Its purpose, according to the local organizations’ website, “has been to educate and inspire young people to value free enterprise and understand business and economics.”
Although Karl’s career required frequent moves, Mary somehow managed to raise three kids, get degrees at three separate colleges and forge a career of her own. She worked as an administrator at an inner-city Los Angeles school and supervised gifted and early childhood special education programs for the Danbury, Conn. school district. Two years after moving to Colorado Springs, Mary took a job as head of the Colorado Springs School, where she would stay until 2000.
“She was so supportive and a great partner,” said daughter Ellen Clark. “She brings out the best in people. She had a great management team, and she wasn’t afraid to make tough decisions. They decided to close the boarding program at the school. Although it was generating revenue, there were some disciplinary issues, and Mary just thought that it was no longer appropriate. She also added a pre-K program.”
In 1994, tragedy struck. On June 22, five days after his 63rd birthday, Karl died of a heart attack. He had just turned 63, and the family was devastated — but Mary carried on.
“She didn’t crumble,” said Ellen Clark. “She didn’t let up. ‘I had the best marriage in the world,’ she told me, but she knew that she had to be strong for us.”
And that strength extended to the Colorado Springs community.
“Mary and Karl were very, very active in the community, and not only for their own nonprofits,” said Hybl. “Particularly Mary, because she came to see me frequently on behalf of other organizations. She was an effective advocate!”
Looking at a partial list of the couple’s charitable/nonprofit involvement is both inspiring and dismaying. Inspiring, because it records lives well spent; dismaying, because few of us have the energy, intelligence and generosity to achieve such goals. But while we may not be able to match their achievements, we can support their goals to the best of our ability.
I’m sure they’d approve.