Remembering UW Alumna Karen Williams: Educator, Innovator, and Mother

As an educator and parent, UW professor emerita Karen Cachevki Williams noticed things that other people didn’t. She was especially fascinated by the unique ways that children learn and process their surroundings.

Williams understood that children are trying to figure out how the world works. She recognized they sometimes hear things differently—and she listened.

It’s one of the many reasons she was an extraordinary teacher and mentor.

Where education begins

Williams’ life’s work centered on the education of young children, and the education of those who teach young children. Her enthusiasm for teaching extended from the youngest students at early childhood education centers to adults enrolled in distance learning programs.

Throughout her life and career, she nurtured the development of human beings. She delighted in interacting with children, mentoring university students and faculty, and cooking for a crowd.

As a professor of family and consumer sciences, she worked with children and adult learners near and far. She traveled to early childhood education centers on the Wind River Indian Reservation, an international school in Germany, and a U.S. Air Force base in New Mexico.

A first-generation college graduate, Williams earned a B.A. in English/secondary education at the University of Illinois and began her career as a high school teacher in North Carolina. In 1976, she and her husband, Steve Williams, moved to Laramie, Wyoming. While he settled into a faculty position at UW, she earned a B.S. in home economics/consumer and educational services.

dark-haired woman wearing red shirt and yellow apron with strawberry and flower print arranges a large plate of vegetables
In the kitchen.

A lifelong learner and educator, she went on to complete a master’s degree in human development from Pacific Oaks College and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from UW, specializing in early childhood education.

After receiving her Ph.D., Williams joined the UW Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. Her lengthy career in the department included a seven-year stint as department head. She later served as director of UW’s applied science program and as a university assessment specialist in the Office of Academic Affairs.

In recognition of her contributions to the university, Williams was posthumously awarded the 2023 UW College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources Outstanding Alumni award.

An early champion of distance learning

Williams studied the use of technology in early childhood settings, but she also leveraged technology to serve place-bound students and adult learners. As part of a sabbatical project, she visited many distance learning students in their home environments.

In 2001, she established UW’s distance professional child development bachelor’s degree program. The program was designed for place-bound students, many of whom were Head Start teachers federally required to complete an undergraduate degree.

Working across departments and colleges, she led the development of a comprehensive, interdisciplinary program that met national standards for early childhood care and education.

The degree includes coursework not only in early childhood development but also in understanding and respecting cultural diversity, working with families, supporting children with special needs, and addressing behavioral issues, says Margaret Cooney, UW professor emerita and a dear friend of Williams.

“One of the gaps in all our early childhood degree programs was that of diversity and its impact on teaching and learning for young children,” Cooney writes. “These were difficult concepts for professionals to absorb and Karen’s ability to teach both colleagues and students in a way that leads to conceptual understanding was remarkable.”

Williams’ ability to communicate these concepts traced back to her childhood in Chicago, where she was raised in a family of recent immigrants. While her parents had no formal education beyond high school, they nurtured an environment in which diverse personalities, backgrounds, and religions were welcomed and respected. Both Williams and her sister, Gail (Cachevki) Gottschling, went on to work in early childhood education.

Serving adult learners

As an advocate for adult and non-traditional students, Williams developed a prior learning assessment program that enabled working adults entering the higher education system to earn academic credit for relevant experience.

In 2010, she launched UW’s bachelor’s of applied science (BAS) in organizational leadership program, originally housed in the College of Ag. She worked tirelessly with community colleges across the state to create a program that supported community college graduates seeking to obtain a bachelor’s degree. According to a colleague, it was the first program of its type in the nation.

Throughout her career, Williams prioritized outreach and community engagement. She regularly visited Wyoming community colleges, attended Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station field days, and visited early childcare centers across the state.

Founding the UW Early Care and Education Center (ECEC)

Closer to home, Williams spearheaded the creation of UW’s Early Care and Education Center in Laramie. Among her many accomplishments, this was one of her most cherished.

“Karen was the lead advocate and designer for the new building,” says Cooney, who worked alongside Williams at the University Child Care facility and Laramie Cooperative Nursery School. “I see her dedication to children and families as all inclusive: as a teacher of young children and later UW students, as a curriculum designer of exciting content…as an advocate for diversity, as a visionary of learning spaces.”

The ECEC opened in 2005 after years of meticulous planning and fundraising by the project’s development task force. “Karen wound up visiting all over the state, talking to legislators and deans, pulling together a multimillion-dollar project to build the ECEC,” her husband recalls. “It was one of the things she was really proud of.”

smiling man and woman wearing yellow shirts in a football stadium full of people wearing University of Wyoming brown and gold apparel
Karen with Stan Bellgard, an honorary member of the Williams family.

When the project fell behind schedule, the couple personally purchased many of the classroom items and furniture required to open the facility. More than 15 years later, the ECEC continues to thrive.

A mentor and cheerleader

The ECEC offers a physical reminder of Williams’ contributions to the UW community, but the lasting impacts of her wise and thoughtful leadership extend well beyond Laramie.

“It was Karen who recognized my potential, when I didn’t see it in myself, to be in an administrative leadership position,” comments Bruce Cameron, professor and department head of textiles, apparel design and merchandising at Louisiana State University.

Cameron isn’t the only mentee who considers Williams a key player in his success. She mentored dozens of students and colleagues over the years.

“She inspired other people. I think she was like a cheerleader in some ways,” her husband reflects. “She could show people the good things that they were doing and put those into a context where they’d pay attention to it.”

Unlike some of her peers, Williams loved advising. She unhesitatingly agreed to mentor any undergraduate or graduate student who needed an advisor.

“Her leadership instilled a unique confidence within her mentees, and a love of teaching,” writes a group of UW colleagues and mentees. “Dr. Williams was able to find a way only she could, to help her students love teaching and see the good in the world.”

In 2012, she received the USDA Western Regional Award for Excellence in College and University Teaching in the Food and Agricultural Sciences.

smiling man and woman wearing glasses and snow gear stand on cross country skis on a snowy trail in the woods on a sunny day
Steve and Karen Williams.

The classroom, the kitchen, and the outdoors

Central to Williams’ teaching philosophies was engagement with the natural world. “She felt as though education, whether it’s at an early age or later on, focusing on the outdoors is so important,” her husband recalls. “There’s so much to be learned from being outside, even on a cold day.”

It’s a principle he incorporated into the classes he taught as a professor in the UW Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. He integrated other aspects of her teaching philosophies as well, including workshop-style strategies in which “you engage everybody in the classroom to help get from point A to point B.” He found that students responded well to these more interactive methods of teaching.

His wife, whose research tended to be more qualitative than quantitative, also helped him become more aware of the human and cultural aspects of teaching. “I began to realize there was the quantitative side, qualitative, and a zone in the middle that was more witchcraft. We talked about that a good deal,” he says.

As a couple, they brought this thoughtful, holistic approach home, perfecting what they dubbed tag-team parenting. Together, they juggled busy academic schedules and research trips abroad with bedtime stories, holiday celebrations, and outdoor adventures with their two sons.

smiling woman with dark hair sits beside smiling man with dark hair and beard, also wearing glasses. A microphone is positioned on a desk in front of them.
Karen and her son Eric at her retirement reception.

Many of these expeditions were accompanied by fishing poles. Fishing was one of Williams’ greatest joys, and a passion she shared with her family. While she spent most of her life in landlocked states, she especially enjoyed the ocean.

Back in Wyoming, she liked to go mushroom hunting. “So there was fish and mushrooms on the table and she enjoyed both immensely,” her husband recalls. “She was a great cook, and she could cook by the seat of her pants.” Like her mother, she often measured in handfuls, generously tossing in ingredients as she bustled around the kitchen.

In many ways, Williams lived the way she cooked: with joy, creativity, and a tendency to give in handfuls rather than teaspoons.

Karen Cachevki Williams passed away in April 2023. Her legacy lives on in the memories of her family, students, colleagues, and friends—and in the educational opportunities she created for past, present, and future students.

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