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Beacon blog: A visitation, explorations - and a prize

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2009 - Wednesday evening, an adventure-addicted group of men and women gathered at the Racquet Club on Kingshighway and as things got underway either stood around in the august confines of the reading room or sank into the leathery comforts, the better to welcome to St. Louis the international president of the storied Explorers Club and to hear some good news.

The club's highest honor -- the Sweeney Medal -- is to be bestowed on the chairperson of the St. Louis chapter at a ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in March.

If there were ever an appropriate place to gather the Explorers club's members and their guests, the Racquet Club is it. The building volleys the somber and playful, presenting as it does a strictly formal, even formidable face to the busy thoroughfare in front of it, but one punctuated by charming windows with sporting scenes created in stained glass.

The clubhouse is part of an ensemble of magnificent buildings, called Holy Corners, clustered around the intersections of McPherson, Washington, Westminster Place and Kingshighway in the city's west end. The St. Louis architecture firm of Mauran, Russell & Garden, which designed some of the neighboring landmark structures, designed the Racquet Club. In its century-plus life, it has accommodated various adventures of one sort or another, many of them merely rowdy or quotidian, but one that is etched indelibly in history.

The Racquet Club's enduring claim to fame is that a group of its members provided a big share of the cash for the non-stop flight of Charles Lindbergh in the "Spirit of St. Louis" aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. The feat - an exploration of mythic proportions -- captured the imagination of the entire world, and brought welcome attention to St. Louis. Our city has legitimate claim on its success, and the leadership that backed the flight was remarkable. The club's critical role in this history is chronicled on a wall on its first floor devoted to Lindbergh and his flight, and members of the Explorers Club's party paused Wednesday evening to look at the memorabilia on their way upstairs to dinner.

International president

Lorie Karnath, our other Intrepid Lady, said when she worked on Wall Street, her colleagues' eyes were on the money, particularly the enormous windfalls that occurred in bonus packages. She, however, wanted something she considered more valuable, and asked if a bonus were in her future, could she trade it in for time off - the better to get out of New York and take off exploring?

Karnath first danced to the rhythms of peripateticism as a child. Her father was a consultant who worked in Europe, and Karnath lived in Belgium, France, Switzerland and England, as well as the States. She now divides her time between New York City, headquarters city for the Explorers Club - and Berlin, where she keeps an apartment. Because of her duties at the club, however, she is mostly in New York or visiting member organizations such as the St. Louis club.

A primary reason for those latter expeditions is her work to raise money for the renovation of the Explorers Club's building on Manhattan's East 70th Street, named for explorer Lowell Thomas. The building, which was home for members of the Clark family whose fortune was run up on Singer sewing machines, needs a multi-million dollar renovation. Karnath is the woman you see holding out the tin cup.

In spite of administrative duties that might be regarded as daunting, she is enthusiastic about her work for the club, and her career, which have intertwined neatly. She has written extensively, and is author, for example, of a book for young readers on the migration of the white stork from a tiny town in Germany to Africa and back.

In addition to presenting an engaging story, her emphasis is on helping children to realize the obstacles to survival thrown before these stately birds. She has also written a book, in German, answering children's questions about science: "Why is the sky blue? Where does the sun go at night."

She is passionate about science, and believes Europeans are skittish about scientific discussions and investigations as a result of the adulteration of science during the Third Reich. (Fear of science in the U.S. is equally persistent and perhaps more irrational.) Her hope is to use her influence to change that attitude, to familiarize people with the language of science "so we are not afraid," she said.

"I feel strongly science is not a luxury, but a requirement. We cannot make intelligent decisions without an understanding of science," she said.

Her interest in the migration of the white stork grew from her concern for its perpetuation. Urbanization, hunting, agricultural poisons - these and other factors threaten extinction. She learned a complex lesson by observing - exploring - how the tiny village of Gummer, Germany, operates, which is instinctually in harmony with nature and with a sense that the property to which the landowners have title is their rather sacred heritage. They see it as something that should be protected and remain in their hands, rather than sold to developers of one sort or another.

"The lesson I learned in this little thousand-year-old town is people who have never read about biodiversity lead their lives in balance with nature." And because such an equilibrium is maintained there, one involving humans, animals, cultivated lands and forests, the birds come back, and thrive in this tiny place.

Karnath is a steady and, well, intrepid explorer. She has followed most of the distance of the Silk Road. She has visited both the Earth's poles. She has explored the jungles of Borneo and the Amazon. Next up: an expedition to Northern China, to visit a refuge for Bactrian camels.

Karnath said the Explorer's Club's unique platform encourages discovering first hand what is going on in the planet, and she has boiled its mission down to five words, which might be regarded as proposals for all of us to entertain: Explore. Discover. Share. Conserve. Sustain.

She acknowledges also that pure exploration is more than travel to exotic places, such as the jungles of Madagascar or the frozen expanses of the Arctic.

"Exploration," she said, "starts in the mind. It is in the mind that our most fertile field research is taking place."

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Although Lindbergh was acknowledged during the chapter meeting of the Explorer's Club Wednesday, he was not in the center of the attention. That was reserved for the Intrepid Ladies, as the Beacon editor dubbed them after they left the offices here Wednesday morning. The visiting "I.L." is Lorie Karnath, now working her way through her first year as president of the venerable international organization and a woman who is about as intrepid as they come.

She was educated in the United States and in Europe and is a scientist, a businesswoman, a writer and, naturally, an explorer. She spoke briefly to the assembly about one of her big jobs in the chief executive's office, which is the supervision of the renovation of the club's headquarters building on East 70th Street in New York City.

Like Lindbergh's transformative jaunt, the renovation effort requires money, millions of dollars, she said, and in four months she has raised close to $1 million. One way she is raising money is selling off bricks taken out in the renovation. One of them was auctioned off to benefit the renovation. Missouri Botanical Garden director Peter Raven - no slouch at fundraising himself - took home the brick for $1,300.

Karnath then deferred to the woman of the hour Wednesday, the chair of the St. Louis club and our resident Intrepid Lady, Dr. Mabel Purkerson.

Mabel Louise Purkerson, M.D., was a distinguished member of the faculty of the Washington University School of Medicine from the early 1960s to the late '90s. She began her career there in 1961 as an instructor in pediatrics and in one capacity or another has been around the med school since.

Her specialty is nephrology, the study of the kidney and diseases of it. She was chief of nephrology on the Washington University service at John Cochran Veterans Administration Hospital in the 1970s, and was associate professor, then professor of medicine at Washington U before claiming professor emerita status in 1998.

Nowadays, when not exploring, she is at work on "The History of Washington University School of Medicine in the 20th Century." In addition to her accomplishments as a scientist and physician, she is also known for her encouragement of worthy causes in the region, and for her philanthropic support of them. The St. Louis Beacon is a recipient of her philanthropy.

The Sweeney medal she will receive at the club's 106th dinner is given annually to a member who has made "outstanding contributions" to the club and to its welfare and objectives, Karnath said. The prize is named for a club past president, described by club literature as a patron of exploration all his life.

"It's the highest award you can receive for duty to the club and its scientific component." Karnath said, "given for lifetime contributions to the club."

Karnath said Dr. Purkerson contributed to every aspect of club life. "She successfully has built up the St. Louis chapter, and on the international level has helped with recruitment of new members, with the library and the archives and has helped me with capital campaign. She is extremely active.

"On the science side," Karnath continued, "her accomplishments include pioneering research as a physician, as well as the expeditions she has under her belt."

Karnath said competition for the medal was tough this year. The process is nomination and consideration by the "flags and honors" committee "They vote, and Mabel got it. It is quite an honor."

After dinner and a tandem talk by Peter Raven and Zoo president Jeffrey P. Bonner on their institutions' cooperative and extraordinary work in Madagascar and Nicaragua, Dr. Purkerson thanked friends and fellow explorers for coming, and talked not so much about her award but about her motivation for applying for club membership in the first place.

First of all, she is -- as Karnath noted -- an explorer in the traditional sense.

Purkerson is possessed of the kind of curiosity that sends people into jungles and up the sheer sides of mountains. She goes off on expeditions frequently and keeps track of what she finds in various places and reports back with clarity and efficiency. Although her inventory of places visited is a lesson in the exotic -- and while at dinner, she reeled off names of countries all over the place and recounted experiences bizarre and fascinating -- she also made a visit to a fledgling online news publication an exploration and an adventure itself. She is recently back from a trip to Africa; she has been to Madagascar; she is loath to allow grass to grow under her feet.

The Explorers Club, of which she is such a stalwart, is not an organization one simply clicks on and joins. Standards are rigorous, and require an applicant be both serious and experienced. Her acceptance for membership has had its rewards for her, for the club and perhaps - because she is not without influence -- for our world.

"I was encouraged to apply by a member," she said. "I have an interest in the conservation of cultures and of native habitats. I want to help to create life-sustaining environments." On journeys, she said, "I like to spend time with people, and to find what their needs are, and to learn how to make lives better.

"I have continued pursuits to conserve and preserve the world for future generations," she said. With a big smile and eyes sparkling, she said, "I want them to enjoy the world as I have."

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