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Fontbonne leader — a trailblazer with a math degree

Karen Gedera credits schools run by Sisters of St. Joseph

Karen Gedera from the Fontbonne Univeristy class of 1965 is pictured in the chapel at Fontbonne in St. Louis Oct. 23.
Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
Karen Gedera didn’t give much thought to where she’d work after she graduated from college with a mathematics degree, at a time when the few women who majored in the field usually ended up as educators.

With interest in a career outside the classroom, she went on to accomplish much in the business world and in May of 2020, Gedera became the first female and alumna to serve as chair of Fontbonne’s Board of Trustees.

Gedera graduated from Fontbonne University in 1965. “I loved it. I picked a subject I liked the best. At that point of my life, I never even thought about what I’d do after I got out of college,” she said.

Her parents were college graduates “and it was a given” that she and her siblings would attend college. “It turned out it was a good major,” she said.

At the time, education was the career choice for most Fontbonne graduates when opportunities in business were limited for women. Gedera wasn’t interested in teaching, however.

She didn’t know anyone who could help a math major find a job outside of teaching, so she “knocked on doors.” It was the beginning of the computer age, and McDonnell Aircraft (now Boeing) needed bright people for its aircraft and space programs. She began in the scientific programming department in support of the engineers. She worked on the Gemini space program and the lead-up to the proposal for the F-15 fighter jet.

She married her husband, Michael, an engineer who went to the University of Pittsburgh, then left the job after a year. Her boss asked her to consider coming back to McDonnell whenever she was ready to return to work. She did so two and a half years later and went right to work on the final F-15 proposal. “It was a wonderful career. I had nothing but good experiences,” Gedera said.

A solid foundation

Fontbonne, along with St. Joseph’s Academy, gave her the foundation for her work. “I learned to be much more confident in myself and learned to communicate,” she said. “Those two things were so critical in my ability to advance. I was never afraid to speak up. I attribute that to having gone to all-girls schools. I’m sure I never would have been good at math if there had been boys there and I had to be smart.”

After a long career with McDonnell Douglas and her own consulting business, Gedera became increasingly involved with Fontbonne. Attending her 40th reunion at Fontbonne, supporting a friend who received an award, she was impressed with the campus. Around the same time she heard inspiring stories from graduates who told her the personal attention they received at Fontbonne made a difference in their lives. “This place is so special and has helped so many people become more than they ever thought they could be,” Gedera said.

A group of women she knew formed the Fontbonne Community Connection in order to support the university, and they asked her to join. It is a giving circle of women who give a minimum of $1,000 a year to fund projects they choose from proposals submitted by students, faculty and staff. So far, the group has committed about $1.2 million to projects. A goal is to increase membership to 100 women. Gedera served as chair of the connection for three years and later was invited to be on the Fontbonne Council of Regents. She was on the council for nine years, chair of the group for four of those years, and in 2016 was elected to Fontbonne’s Board of Trustees. She became board chair earlier this year, the third ex-McDonnell (now Boeing) executive to serve as board chair.

Importance of education

Education is important to her. St. Louis has pockets of poverty, “and the only way to get out of that is to educate people,” she said.

A member of St. Anselm Parish in Creve Coeur, she helps students through the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation. It assists faith-based and private elementary schools in providing quality, affordable and accessible educational opportunities for any economically disadvantaged family within the St. Louis region through scholarships.

Her father was in the Knights of Columbus and told her that one of its functions was to help educate people so they can become responsible citizens. “So I guess I get it a little from him,” Gedera said.

She’s thankful that her mother insisted that she was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph. At Fontbonne, she learned more about her faith in depth and an understanding that faith shapes how to conduct your life. “Even though many of our students are not Catholic, it’s foundational here. Its mission is so tied to the Sisters of St. Joseph heritage. There’s no better role models than them. It goes back to those who arrived here in the 1800s. What incredibly brave, committed and strong women they were.”

Fontbonne is in good hands with its new president, Nancy Blattner, she said. “She’s had terrific experience in setting strategies and executing them,” Gedera said.

Her term as chair ends when Fontbonne celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023. “My hope and goal is that by the end of my term we will have set those strategies and we are on a trajectory that says Fontbonne is in a good position for the next 100 years.”

>> Gedera’s role at Fontbonne

Karen Gedera oversees the Fontbonne’s Board of Trustees, which has oversight responsibility of the university. Part of her task is to ensure recruitment of board members who represent a variety of areas of expertise as well as different parts of the community. She also helps populate the board’s committees and make sure they oversee the facets of the university they are responsible for. Gedera regularly communicates with Fontbonne’s president, Nancy Blattner.

Gedera says she is the first female chair of Fontbonne’s Board of Trustees, but calls attention to the earlier role of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Until the 1970s, the sisters operated Fontbonne. Although they did not call themselves board chairs, they had the same roles and responsibilities. Gedera views this position as a continuation of their legacy.

She also was the first woman to serve in many of the managerial roles at Boeing. As she advanced in her career, she became more aware of the importance of role models, so she strives to be one for others.

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