Arts community fixture embraces new challenges

Karen Volpe, program specialist for the Blair County Arts Foundation for the past 23 years, plans to retire June 1. “You know when the time has come for a new chapter,” she said. “I’ve always thrived on change. You don’t want to get stale or stagnant.” Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec

Some people resist change, but Karen Volpe embraces new situations, new people and will be newly retired June 1.

As the program specialist at the Blair County Arts Foundation for the past 23 years, Volpe, 67, of Altoona, retires May 31, 12 days after the conclusion of the Blair County Arts Festival at Penn State’s Altoona campus.

“You know when the time has come for a new chapter,” Volpe said. “I’ve always thrived on change. You don’t want to get stale or stagnant.”

Her affinity for change also made a positive impact on the annual arts festival, said Kate Shaffer, BCAF executive director. Volpe contributed in multiple ways to elevate the local arts scene.

“It’s difficult to imagine the Blair County Arts Foundation without Karen Volpe,” Shaffer said. “Karen and I used to joke that she had half of a brain and I had half of a brain, and together we had one complete, functioning brain. I’ve interpreted that as a half-brained way of stating that we made a good team.”

Volpe started at BCAF in 1996 as a part time, subcontracted coordinator for the Blair County Arts Festival and eventually expanded into a dual role.

“In her capacity as the coordinator of the Blair County Arts Festival, Karen was always reinventing the event, at each turn enhancing the scope and nature of the annual celebration of the arts. As the Mishler’s part-time theater manager, she worked with hundreds of tenants over the years, patiently guiding them through the rental process and making certain their performances were successful,” Shaffer said. “In her spare time, Karen wrote and directed the ‘Sparkle’ series. In bringing these shows to life, she ensured children of all ages would have the opportunity to walk on the stage and shine!”

Volpe first visited Altoona in the mid-1970s as a member of a musical/comedy touring group called Fundaze. The Las Vegas-based ensemble traveled across the country and Canada. Volpe fronted the seven-piece Fundaze band with others as they performed comedy skits and played music at venues such as the Grouse’s Nest, an Altoona hotspot for entertainment in the 1970s and 1980s. As Fundaze returned numerous times, Volpe developed a friendship with three fans who became friends: David Kimmel and Bets E. Helsel and her brother, the late Steve Helsel, enjoyed Fundaze so much they would travel to see their shows any time they visited Pennsylvania. The ensemble was part of the Sheraton hotel chain’s top 40 circuit, Kimmel said.

“They were so awesome, and Karen really stood out,” said Kimmel of Altoona. “She just had this presence … this persona about her. She had a great voice, she could dance and we fell in love with her.”

Those connections changed her life.

“I used to call them group­ies, but they really became much, much more than that,” Volpe recalled. “They became my true friends,” Volpe said. “At the time, we became penpals and kept in touch through letters sent in the mail. They even traveled around the state to see us.”

Kimmel introduced Volpe to her future husband, Rich Volpe, and he is godfather to their youngest child.

“Karen has that ability to get along with people,” Kimmel said. “Let’s face it, an event like the arts festival can be stressful, but she handles it with a smile — most of the time.”

Jonathan O’Harrow, president of the Blair County Arts Foundation’s board, has worked with Volpe on the festival and in many ACT-related activities.

“What I love and admire most about Karen is how important it is to her to provide artistic opportunities for children,” O’Harrow said. “There are literally generations of actors, musicians, and other performers who experienced theater for the first time under Karen’s direction. The Sparkle shows are just one example of that. And the entire idea for that series of shows came from Karen. She wasn’t instructed to come up with an idea like that. She didn’t have to do it. She wanted to do it. And although it was tons of work and it often re­sulted in many, many head­aches, I know she doesn’t regret a moment of it. You look at the Sparkle shows, you look at Altoona Com­munity Theatre’s summer workshops for kids (also founded by Karen), and you look at the arts festival, the biggest and best family-friendly event this community has to offer … I don’t feel like it’s an exaggeration to say that no one in this community has done more to encourage young people to explore the arts than Karen Volpe.”

Shaffer said Volpe will be missed.

“Her departure will upset the balance of the team for quite some time,” Shaffer said. “Karen’s hard work, creativity, dedication and loyalty are just a few of the qualities that made her a dream employee. However, more importantly, it was the essence of Karen that made her a cherished friend. While we will certainly be losing an incredible employee, the friendship will continue! We all wish her a fabulous time in this new and exciting chapter of life.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

The Volpe file

Name: Karen Volpe

Age: 67

Hometown: Springfield, Ohio

Family: Husband, Rich; daughters: Rachel Wagner, 35, and her husband, Sam Wagner; Emily Koch, 31, and husband Eric, all of Altoona; and Gina Volpe, 29, of Hollidaysburg; and grandchildren: Richie Wagner, 4, and Betty Wagner, 1.

Awards and honors: 2013 ACT’s Dean Dreifus Award; 2018 Angel of the Arts Award in recognition of her “Sparkle Shows.”

Education: Northwestern High School, Springfield, Ohio

Experience: WIZE radio in Springfield, news reporter and call-in talk show host, 1972-74; WING radio in Dayton, 1974-75; Fundaze: 1975-81; WVAM/WPRR 1981-82; WTAJ-TV 1982-87; directed “Annie,” “The Music Man” and “The King and I” for Altoona Community Theatre; served as president of the ACT Board of Directors as well as member of board for several terms; created summer drama camps for children and teens in 1988; wrote and directed 13 original productions, for school-age children, in a series of “Sparkle Shows” between 2002 and 2017 to benefit Blair County Arts Foundation and ACT; and BCAF employee: 1996-2019