Karen Walsh grew up in rural Wisconsin just outside of Columbus where her path frequently crossed with those of abandoned felines.
Those early years for Walsh, whose father was not a farmer but worked on the production line and later as a supervisor at Oscar Mayer in Madison, left an impression.
Now, living on Lake Mendota in Shorewood Hills, she shares her spacious home not only with her husband, Dr. Jim Berbee, but with her cat, Doc, and, on a regular basis, cats that have been abused, abandoned or that were born in the wild. Rizzo and Layla, a pair of Cavelier King Charles Spaniels, appear to be good with the arrangement.
Walsh and Berbee are strong supporters of Dane County Friends of Ferals and in 2008 donated $62,000 for construction of a 1,200-square-foot shelter at 627 Post Road. Since its founding in 2001, more than 4,000 feral cats have been rescued.
But their latest gift is more substantial. Last month the couple donated $10 million to the UW School of Medicine and Public Health to increase the size of the UW Hospital emergency facility from 34 treatment areas to 50.
Dr. Berbee, a Madison native, founded Berbee Information Networks Corp. in Fitchburg in 1993 and sold the company in 2006 for $175 million. He then went on to medical school and now works in emergency medicine in Madison and rural Wisconsin.
Walsh, a UW-Madison graduate, spent 23 years with the university. Her career began at Wisconsin Public Radio but was primarily with the College of Engineering where she worked in communications and finished as an assistant dean. She’s now taking a crack at writing a novel.
What drew you to writing and journalism?
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I was always interested in writing. I thought I was going to be a high school English teacher but it wasn’t too long into my practicum that I realized teaching wasn’t for me. I’ve always been a big news hound. I liked institutional relations because there is so much wonderful work going on at the university and you feel like you’re a part of something that’s so important to so many people’s lives.
You moved to California for three years when Jim attended Stanford Medical School. What was it like for two Wisconsin natives to leave and then return?
We always intended to come back. We did make some very good friends but you take for granted how friendly people are here and how willing they are to sit down and get to know you. There were a lot of great things about California. I had always wanted to write fiction so when I moved to California I wasn’t working and so I started taking writing classes at Stanford. I’m now in the process of writing my first novel. It’s based in Wisconsin. It’s where I’m anchored.
Why is it so important for you to save feral cats?
Because I grew up in the country. Frequently people would (dump) their cats, and it’s just heartbreaking to see them fend for food. I’ve always had a connection with cats. I’m not a crazy cat lady but I think I understand them in a way some people don’t. All my life I have wanted to help them.
How do you and Jim decide who will benefit from your philanthropy?
It’s a challenge because there’s so many worthy causes but when we set up our foundation it’s set up for human and animal health welfare. That’s what we concentrate on because personally we feel strongly about those two things and we feel we can do more good if we have a niche. Certainly, in this community, there are so many needs for health care.
— Interview by Barry Adams