OWhen Karen Straatmann moved to Washington, she said there was only one traffic light in town. Yet, to her, it felt like a big city.
She grew up just outside Chamois, a town on the Missouri River west of Washington in Osage County. Chamois’ population in 1970, the census year just before she moved to Washington with her husband, Dale, was 615. That year, Washington had a population of 8,499.
Today, the married couple are parents to three children and grandparents to six. Dale and Karen celebrated 50 years of marriage on May 6.
Growing up, her class at Assumption Elementary School had only seven students. It closed the year she graduated.
The river and the topography of Chamois made life there a bit unpredictable.
“A lot of flooding,” she explained. “We had a house on a hill which was often surrounded by water. We had a boat tied to the tree in the front yard.
His father, Marvin Starke, was a farmer and his mother, Lavern Starke, a housewife.
“My dad always told us he wanted us to go to college because he never had that opportunity,” she said. “So my brother, my sisters and I all did it.”
Straatmann earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Central Missouri—then Central Missouri State University—in Warrensburg in 1972 and a master’s degree in music education from the University of Maryville in the 1980s.
But her father’s impact on her went beyond simply achieving an education.
“My dad was a farmer all week,” Straatmann said. “But on Saturday night he put on his red tuxedo to go do a dance job with his brothers, and they were really good too.”
She said her father and brothers had a band, the Moonlight Serenaders, which would play swing music in the style of Glenn Miller, the American bandleader who scored 16 No. 1 records and 69 top-10 hits best.
This, she said, sparked her interest in music – an interest that, in turn, sparked several generations of students when she became a music teacher.
Straatmann Primary School was too small to have a band, so when she attended Chamois High School it was her first time learning to play an instrument. She played the saxophone – the same one used by her father; he played it at the weekend and she had it during the week. She and a few classmates had only three months to learn to play before joining the high school orchestra.
“After three months, the first play we played, when I was a freshman in high school, was ‘Washington Post March,'” she said, referring to John Philip Sousa’s composition. “And they went on that and we were like, ‘Oh my God.’ We were lost after the first measure.
“But it was also, I think, a message to us that if you wanted to play in this band, you have to learn how to do it and you have to work at it.”
And that message of work ethic and practice is something she took into her teaching career.
The bulk of Straatmann’s music teaching career was spent in the Meramec Valley R-III school district where she spent approximately 29 years, eventually leading the group at Meramec Valley Middle School.
Stepping into this role was difficult, she says. “The superintendent at the time said he would never have a woman teaching a group as long as he was superintendent.”
Thus, she served as an elementary music teacher at the district’s Coleman Elementary School. However, she soon got the job she wanted.
“He didn’t last very long,” she said. “And then I started teaching the band.”
At first, she taught elementary school students, then moved on to middle school. His last seven years in the district were spent teaching music to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders.
“I had a lot of students back then, and I was the only one there,” she said. “It was a big job.”
“A big job” which offered him the chance to share his love of music with others.
Stefanie Buscher, whom Straatmann taught band seventh and eighth graders at Meramec Valley Middle School, was so inspired that she became a music teacher herself. Buscher, who teaches music education in the Rockwood School District, said she decided music education was what she wanted to do after just a few months of learning from Straatmann.
“The exact connection she had – not just with me, but with her seemed like every student and there were so many students she had – that was so pivotal in my life, helping me create a path and to see what maybe I could do with my life and my career,” Buscher said.
“As a new student at a really great school, she was absolutely wonderful — really helped me navigate as a new student and a new building and work to build relationships,” Buscher said.
She said Straatmann would teach 50 or more students at a time, which now, as a teacher herself, she realizes must have been difficult.
“That kind of caring compassion really stuck with me,” Buscher said. “You just knew she cared about you.”
After working at Meramec Valley R-III, Straatmann spent nine years teaching at St. Francis Borgia Elementary School before retiring. At Borgia, alongside co-teacher Martha Gleich, she also taught students from neighboring schools who did not have a group, including Immanuel Lutheran, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. John’s, St. Vincent’s and St. Gertrudes .
“I really love teaching,” Straatmann said. “I loved the first day I taught and loved it throughout.”
Today she directs the Notre-Dame de Lourdes bell choir.
However, his desire to educate did not stop at music. She also taught students about a different culture on the other side of the globe.
When Straatmann first visited Marbach am Neckar in 1997, a German town about 20 kilometers north of Stuttgart, she had never traveled abroad before. But it wasn’t the last time. Over the years, she has brought about 20 Washington-area college students and adults to the German city.
All of this through the Washington Sister City Program, a relationship between the two cities that was officially established in Marbach in 1990 and in Washington in 1991. The Sister City partnership has led to a cultural exchange between the two cities with students, business leaders, elected officials, firefighters and others visiting each community.
“I think this program is an eye-opener for students,” Straatmann said. “And it gives them a new perspective on the world and what other people are like, so I think it’s so valuable for students to realize that we’re not the only ones on this planet. There are a lot of people and we must recognize our differences, but rejoice in our similarities.
Not only is visiting Germany a great learning experience, but it’s also fun.
“It’s so lovely and the people are so friendly,” she said.
In addition to sightseeing, Washington students also have the option of traveling to Marbach am Neckar and living there with a family for a few weeks. And German students have the same opportunity in Washington, which is how Straatmann got involved in the program.
Her first interaction with Marbach am Neckar came when she took in a German girl and sent her daughter to live temporarily with the German girl’s family.
Straatmann became so involved with the program that she became president of the Sister City Commission of Washington, a role she held for the past eight years.
Former Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy nominated Straatmann.
“Karen just realized the importance of the program and the benefits you could learn by traveling to another country and learning about their culture, and then bringing them here and learning about our culture,” Lucy said. “She has established very good relationships with many of the people in Marbach whom we visit and correspond with regularly.”
Lucy said Straatmann was a perfect fit for the role.
“It was only natural for her to get involved in this, because she was always trying to educate us about Germany – and the Germans about us,” Lucy said. “It’s pretty amazing.”