DU Alumni

Alumna Karen Mathis honored for community service

“You’ve heard of white-collar families and blue-collar families,” says Karen Mathis (BA ’72). “Mine was a no-collar family.”

An Army brat, the oldest of four children and witness to her parents’ traumatic divorce, Mathis looks back and realizes she had a lot of odds stacked against her. And yet, from those humble roots, Mathis rose to become just the third woman to serve as president of the American Bar Association (ABA) in its 130-year history.

Mathis’ resumé is also loaded with volunteer and professional positions with organizations that help women and children and expand the rule of law. They include stints as national president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, a national board member with Volunteers of America, board member of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood and a Mile Hi Girl Scout Council officer. She also served as executive director of the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative Institute (CEELI).

For her decades of service locally, nationally and internationally, Mathis is this year’s recipient of the Founders Day Community Service Award.

Mathis is very clear on why she is so driven to serve others.

“When I see a child at risk, I realize that it could have been me,” she says. “I don’t forget where I came from. There but for the grace of God go I.”

Mathis knew she wanted to be a lawyer from the age of 14, but since no one else in her family had ever gone to a university, and since there was no money for tuition, she wasn’t sure how it could happen.

A full-ride scholarship to DU launched her. While completing her degree in history and political science—with a secondary education certificate—Mathis began what would become a habit: serving others. She became a Big Sister when she was a DU sophomore.

Her path then took her through law school at the University of Colorado, a career as a successful attorney and president of the ABA, and into a position that still thrills her to discuss: executive director of the CEELI, an international provider of postgraduate legal education headquartered in Prague. The institute educates judges and prosecutors—primarily from former Soviet republics—on the rule of law and human rights.

Upon returning to the United States from that heady, busy position, Mathis had many options available to her.

“After serving as president of the ABA, you realize that your potential to make an impact is greater than ever before,” she says.

Mathis left her law firm to become national president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and served for two and a half years in Philadelphia before returning to her educational roots and Denver. She now serves as associate executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at DU.

“This institute is dedicated to improving the justice system, which I am very passionate about,” she says. “And it’s also an opportunity for me to give back to my alma mater. It’s pretty cool to end your career where you started it.”

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