Conversations with Leaders: Karen Caesar
Any other year, you might see the tall, elegant woman gathered with her team in an impromptu hallway meeting. If you walk past Caesar’s office suite, you might also see a colorful, hand-drawn grid on her wall-sized whiteboard as commencement season began at Governors State University.
Alas, this year is radically different in the wake of the pandemic and all its restrictive policies. Hall huddles and office suite meetings have given way to Zoom calls, and dry erase markers have been replaced by the arrow of a PowerPoint presentation.
The one consistent factor is Caesar, who remains the same passionate, multi-tasking czar, regardless of COVID-chaos raging all around her.
“We must do the very best we can do to celebrate our graduates,” she said. “They’ve worked so hard to accomplish their goals and achievements in spite of and throughout this COVID-19 pandemic.”
It’s that can-do attitude that has allowed Caesar, Director of Events since 2007, to strategically transform spaces that create experiences and memories that are forever a part of the university’s legacy. With a skeletal staff of two, Caesar is charged with the planning and execution of a wide range of university events. These events are designed to raise money and increase the visibility of the university, and boost morale among GSU employees. Since 2015, Caesar has successfully overseen the event management and course scheduling system – 25Live – as well.
Notable events have included “Jazz in the Park,’’ featuring jazz legend Ramsey Lewis; the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park’s “Carts and Cocktails,” now known as “Sculpture, Wine and Dine” under serene September skies; the 2007 presidential installation; the 40th anniversary celebration; annual faculty and staff picnics, scholarship luncheons; and the Center for Performing Arts gala.
Her signature event may very well be commencement, which Caesar begins planning almost a year in advance to ensure each graduate, family member, and guest feel like she planned the events just for them.
Caesar is the first to admit she never planned a career in events management.
Raised on the South Side of Chicago by educators, Caesar aspired to be a teacher. Her father, Irvin Caesar, received his master’s degree from GSU in 1983. After college, Caesar taught for a few years, first in Reedsburg, Wis., where she taught children with disabilities. She eventually moved back to Chicago to work in the Chicago Public School system but stopped after she noticed a troubling pattern of discipline among students.
It wouldn’t be her last step away from a career track.
In 1983, Caesar began as an administrative assistant at the Federal National Mortgage Association, commonly known as Fannie Mae. Over the next 16 years, she advanced seven- times, including three positions that were created just for her to reward her interests and work ethic. Most of her time at Fannie Mae was spent traveling the nation, negotiating and writing contracts for mortgage-backed securities and loans for residential and commercial properties, Native American reservations, and other housing entities.
A natural people person, Caesar also planned events for consumers and housing organizations, winning a multitude of awards, earning a handsome living.
But something was missing from her life, and Caesar – an innate problem solver with an inquisitive mind - decided she had to step away from Fannie Mae to explore her options. When asked what her future plans were at the time, Caesar recites her response on cue.
“I said, ‘I’m going to get off this train right here, at this stop. I’m going to cross these tracks to stop and smell the flowers, play in the creek or river over here …. There may be many other trains that pass by, and I may decide to get on one of them or I may just let it pass me by because it may not be the right train, at the right time. But this particular train, I must get off of it - now - at this stop,’‘’ Caesar punctuates her reflection with her trademark laughter.
Once off the corporate train, Caesar spent the next eight years indulging her creativity as a project consultant still traveling throughout the country, planning special events including charity golf tournaments and grand openings, national tradeshows. Two of her most exciting events were the “Hi Gorgeous” and “Live Your Best Life” tours for O, The Oprah Magazine.
During this period of time, she also spent more time with her family and connected with her community as a two-term Rich Township Trustee.
Looking back over her colorful mosaic of experiences, from teaching to sales and marketing to working on Native American reservations to event planning, Caesar says she stepped into her role at Governors State at the perfect time.
“The university had just hired the fifth president of GSU the same year, so I was thrilled and honored with planning her installation ceremony to welcome her to the community,” Caesar said. “Two years later, I helped plan the university’s 40th anniversary celebration and ten years later, the 50th birthday party in 2019.”
Now, charged with planning Governors State University’s 2021 Commencement – one unlike any other – and the installation of the university’s sixth president, Caesar said she’s up for the challenge and looking forward to what’s next. One thing’s for sure, she’s not one to shy away from challenges or change.
“We have to be open to grow and evolve or we die,” she said. “I think that’s why I’ve been able to move in and out of so many positions. Being at Governors State has been a very special time in my life and I hope I’ve been able to make pleasant and effectual memories for the faculty, staff, and students, as well.”