Karen Cole the person: football player, decorated runner, whitewater daredevil, intercontinental traveler, meat carver and key cutter. Circuit Judge Karen Cole tends to paint herself as the clumsiest, most timid, unathletic, ungainly person in the courthouse.
But within the span of a few short minutes, Judge Cole is able to rattle off personal anecdotes that reflect Karen Cole in the aforementioned active capacities. Of course, there is always a story behind the titles. Lest you get the impression Cole is a ripsnorting swashbuckler, she then offers a sensible explanation to the above hyperbole.
“In general, people would say I tend not to be a risk taker,” she said. “But every once in a while, I’ve done one or two things that involves some degree of risk.”
Take, for instance, her ground breaking efforts to bridge the gender gap in the testosterone steeped sport of football. About 20 years ago as a member of the Coffman and Coleman Strikebreakers, she stood toe-to-toe on the gridiron with her physically larger male counterparts.
“To the best of my knowledge, I’m one of three women who together served on the only Law League flag football team to ever have women.”
Along with teammates Joann Bricker Nickels and Lori Terens Holshouser, Cole risked bodily harm with each snap of the ball — all in the name of teamwork. Despite her monumental achievement in gender equity, Cole downplays her role.
“I’m terribly unathletic. I have to confess that upfront,” she said. “They were so nice to let me play. I was definitely not a first stringer, but I did get into play once or twice. There was this one game where I actually pulled the flag. I have to tell you, the players on the other team kind of got used to wiping me off their radar screen because they knew I wasn’t very capable. But the other player came close to me and I reached out and pulled the flag and there was this moment where everybody stopped. I couldn’t believe it. The other player couldn’t believe it. My other teammates couldn’t believe it. And then my team applauded. It was one of the highlights of my very limited athletic career.”
She again showed her athletic prowess in the annual Law Day Run. Once again, her modesty overcomes her when she describes the experience. The 5K run zigzags through city streets and over the St. Johns River, forcing the runners to negotiate the steep grade of the Acosta Bridge. Yet Cole came away with the third place trophy for women lawyers.
“That sounds really wonderful until you learn that there were only three woman lawyers in that race,” she said. “That’s the only way I could ever have won any sort of trophy in any sort of race.”
Cole’s sometimes racy life is dotted with perilous treks through whitewater rapids on rivers named Ocoee, French Broad and Chattooga. Yet for her, eastern rivers are glassy compared to the turbulent rapids in the Pacific Northwest. To this day, the infamous Boulder Drop rapid is emblazoned in her mind.
“One time I was on the Skykomish River, which is near Seattle,” she said. “I’ve only done a Class V rapid one time in my life and I did it on that river. We had a wonderful guide. He made us pull over and climb up on a boulder and look at the rapid so we could decide if we wanted to shoot it. But with my heart in my lungs, I said OK. I remember shooting that rapid and I wasn’t even conscious of when I started shouting. But I know that everyone that was with me was shouting at the top of their lungs. It was really thrilling. It really was.
“The only mishap we really had was one river where the worst rapid was the first rapid,” she continued. “We had some people who had never gone whitewater rafting with us. We took the rapid and we heard a splash. So we just assumed it was one of them. We turned around and it was our guide. It turned out that it was his first time on the river being a guide. The previous summer, he had worked in the office taking reservations. It didn’t inspire great confidence.”
In her late 20s, Cole traveled to the Old Country, wandering through Europe and Great Britain, wherever her muse led her. Rather than taking a friend or tagging along on a tour, she packed a bag and hit the road alone.
“It really teaches you independence traveling alone,” she said.
It also taught her to accept travel advice with some skepticism.
“One thing that I learned is that don’t rely on people who tell you, ‘It’s low season in Paris. You don’t need a hotel reservation,’” she joked. “I got into Paris, 28 years old. I speak very poor French. I arrived about 11 p.m. on the train. I had no hotel reservation and had my one suitcase on my back. I’m wandering the streets of Paris trying to find a hotel and attempting to converse with the occasional taxi driver who will stop. They usually got disgusted, rolled up their window and drove off.”
A little stress and conflict was nothing for Cole. After all, stress and conflict were the nature of her job, then as a lawyer, and now as a Circuit Court judge. Texan by birth, Floridian by age, Cole grew up in St. Petersburg. Like a typical high school student, after school work varied from fast food slinger to store clerk.
“My first job was as a sales clerk at S.S. Kresge, which was affiliated somehow with what later became Kmart,” she said. “I did everything. I ran the cash register, I cut duplicate keys, I sliced ham in the deli, I caught goldfish. You had to be a jack-of-all-trades to have that job.”
After high school, she studied psychology at Jacksonville University. Although she enjoyed the field made famous by Freud, Jung and Maslow, she saw greater promise in law.
“I felt that law might offer something a little more concrete — less abstract,” she said. “As it turns out, that’s only partially true. I think that law is very amorphous and developing. It’s certainly not set in stone, for instance, the way accounting might be. But I certainly enjoy it and I’m glad I made the choice I made.”
After a two-year stint at Bedell, Bedell, Dittmar & Zehmer in 1981, tackling commercial litigation to get her legal legs, she moved through two partnerships before she made her move at a judgeship. She was appointed to complete Dorothy Pate’s unexpired term in 1994.
Her first days on the bench were not without incident.
“I started on Jan. 3 and I had my second child on Jan. 6,” she said. “He was premature. I was actually in the middle of a trial. I worked all through the morning during the trial. I called my doctor at lunch and said, ‘Would you mind if I came over?’ I told the lawyers I’d be back for the afternoon session. I went to see my doctor and she said, ‘You’re not going back.’ Four hours later I had my second child.”
A family law veteran, Cole has the usual courtroom experiences — some funny, some sad, some tragic and some moving.
“All of the above. Dependency division, which involves child abuse and child neglect, can break your heart,” she said. “I really think that it’s the most difficult division in the courthouse. You have to know fairly detailed substantive law. But you also have to know a lot about issues like child development, family violence, substance abuse and mental health. And you have to have some sensitivity for the family dynamic.”
Despite the nature of the work, which can weigh heavy on a judge’s heart at times, Cole insists she maintains a positive outlook.
“There’s always something to learn,” she said. “There’s always something new to do. There’s always a challenge. If there ever ceases to be, I would find something different to do.”
Like maybe a football coach? Whitewater rafting guide? OK, not likely.