In lieu of sending flowers, the family kindly asks to have donations made to a new foundation that UCSD has established in Karen's name to help further the work to which she devoted her career: "The ...

Karen Jean Calfas Polarek

February 28, 1962March 7, 2019
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Our beloved Karen Jean Calfas Polarek was born on February 28, 1962, in Santa Monica, California, the second child of John Athon Calfas and Margarethe Wennes Egertson Calfas. She was baptized on June 10, 1962, at Concordia Lutheran Church in Los Angeles. By the late sixties, Karen had three siblings: Diane, Scott and Christine.

As Karen grew up, she moved with her family from Pacific Palisades to Encino, California, where she took piano lessons, became a Girl Scout, and learned how to ride a Schwinn called “Lil Chik.” She was confirmed at Bethel Lutheran Church in Encino on Palm Sunday, April 11, 1976, and received her first communion the following week. For years, one of her favorite activities was singing in the large youth choir at Bethel, the Life Assurance Company.

In 1980, Karen graduated from Montclair College Preparatory School in Van Nuys, California. Then she was off to Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and received her B.A. in Psychology in 1985. Karen moved to San Diego and entered the joint clinical psychology graduate program at University of California San Diego and San Diego State University. During the course of her studies, she did an internship in behavioral medicine at Brown University, School of Medicine, in Providence, Rhode Island. Karen earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1990, and, in 1993, she became a licensed psychologist in the state of California specializing in behavioral medicine.

After she received her Ph.D., she worked at SDSU for almost two decades, beginning as a grant writer and becoming the Director of Health Promotion. During her time there, she worked extensively on the PACE project with Dr. Kevin Patrick and Dr. James Sallis, which developed “tools to help primary care physicians counsel their patients on becoming more physically active” (from These tools are now in use throughout the University of California system, as well as in many other places internationally.

In 2009, Karen moved to UCSD and spent a decade there, first as the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Wellness and then as Executive Director of Student Health and Wellbeing, a position she held until her passing. Her areas of responsibility at UCSD included overseeing Student Health Services, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Sexual Assault Resource Center, Campus Recreation and the Wellness Center. One of her main foci was the development of the new Student Health and Wellbeing Center in the Triton Pavilion that is to be built on campus. She was passionately devoted to this project and was working toward a center that would be state-of-the-art and an inspiration to student wellness programs at universities everywhere. Karen has been referred to by her colleagues as a brilliant researcher, a compassionate supervisor and a visionary leader.

Karen loved her profession, and she was also very devoted to her family. Karen met her future husband, Thomas Matthew Polarek, in October 1992. They were married on August 24, 1996, after a surprise marriage proposal many months before. On July 9, 2002, they were overjoyed to welcome the first addition to their family, Jonathan Thomas Calfas Polarek. When their daughter Jordan Marie Calfas Polarek was born three years later on July 12, 2005, they felt their family and their joy was complete.

Karen shared many special things with her children. To mention only a few, she had a talent for baking and decorating extraordinary, specialty cakes for and with her children. Jordan also loves to bake and spent many hours in the kitchen with her mom. With Jonathan, Karen shared her love of music, especially guitar, their favorite instrument to play. Karen also enthusiastically supported Jonathan's love of surfing and would watch him whenever she could. Traveling to dance competitions together was something she always cherished doing with Jordan. Karen was truly proud of both her children and was a very happy mother.

In the larger family, Karen was known for loving to decorate for holidays large and small, enjoying the setting of a beautiful table for special events, and indulging in a small bowl of ice cream any night she could get away with it. Karen also helped many others in the family from her siblings to nieces to cousins’ children whenever she could. She had a generous spirit.

Throughout her life, Karen had a deep faith in God which sustained her. This was a faith she was raised in and then embraced even more profoundly as a teenager. She was a devoted member of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Encinitas and loved to worship there with her family.

Karen’s husband Tom has said that there was no one who didn’t like her. He’s right. She was smart, beautiful and caring. Tom said she was a trailblazer who also changed people’s lives – all true. She was a wonderful daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, and colleague.

The pain of losing Karen is exceeded only by the blessing of having had her in our lives for as long as we did.

“And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Shakespeare

Karen is survived by her husband Thomas Polarek, son Jonathan Polarek, and daughter Jordan Polarek; as well as by her mother Margarethe Calfas, siblings Diane Calfas, Scott Calfas, and Christine Calfas; and a large extended family.


  • Visitation

    Thursday, March 21, 2019

  • Celebration of Life

    Saturday, March 23, 2019


Karen Jean Calfas Polarek

have a memory or condolence to add?

Erin Raskin

April 10, 2020

Dear Tom and family,

A year+ later, I am thinking of your beloved Karen. She certainly shined and shared her bright light everywhere she went.

Because of Karen's openness and vision, I have been at Student Health practicing Chinese Medicine and acupuncture for 4+ years. Karen was a kind, smart, available, creative, loving and wise woman.

May your memories of her continue to be a blessing.

Erin Raskin

Mariam Mott

March 21, 2019


We grieve the loss of our classmate, colleague, and friend.
She was a beautiful person, right up to the end.
She was endlessly positive in our graduate days,
Touching our lives with her own special ways.
We dubbed her “eternal optimist,” which captures her essence—
Karen was vibrant; passionate; energetic; and effervescent.
She was lovely and sweet, she was gentle and kind—
A multi-talented woman with a brilliant mind.
She could light up a room with her dazzling smile,
And her voice—like an angel’s—could ease any trial.
We went different ways when our training was done,
Yet her indelible influence stays with everyone.
In the years since we parted, her impact spread wide,
Like the waves of the ocean at morning’s high tide.
She left us too soon! Though our hearts are all shattered,
We seek comfort in knowing that her life truly mattered.
We call Karen our Bright Light, and we know that it’s right
That her beautiful glow still shines through the night.
We trust that our loss is indeed Heaven’s gain,
And in each of our hearts may her spirit remain.

With love, gratitude, and an abundance of fond memories from
Karen’s Joint Doctoral Program inaugural classmates:
(top row) Jackie Day, Larry Smith, Michelle Toshima, Amy Bhirle,
(bottom row) Mariam Mott, Jeanne Townsend, and Paula Shear

Chris Lovato

March 20, 2019

All the stories that I remember about Karen have a common thread—a thread that weaves together my memories of her into an everlasting tapestry of love and joy. It is reflected in everything she did—from baking cakes, to her research, and the work she did in student wellness at SDSU and UCSD. Karen had an abundance of caring that was built upon a foundation of joyful, loving energy and a “can do” attitude that stretched across all aspects of her life.

It expressed itself in starting a business, implementing cutting edge research, and doing construction work along-side Tom when they remodelled their first home. Karen and Tom opened their home to me for nearly two years when I commuted between San Diego and Vancouver. I was amazed to see that Karen did plumbing, plastering, and flooring, as well as she did research! I remember when she tutored me in cooking and advised me, “The first time you make something, follow the recipe; after that you can be as creative as you want.” Karen’s unshakeable “can do” attitude also showed itself when she and I bought our cars together so that, as she argued, we could negotiate the price down by saying, “how about we buy two cars instead of just one.”

In all areas of her life, what I remember most about Karen is a joyful and loving person who genuinely cared about others. She was just so much fun to be with, I fully delighted in sharing our lives. She was caring of me and all those she knew. I’ll always remember her infectious laughter and the ever-present twinkle in her eyes.

Godspeed my friend! A part of you will always remain with me.

Gregory Spire

March 18, 2019

The positive and approachable nature that you possessed and brought to the student and staff population at UCSD will be missed. I can only hope that during our brief encounters, some of that rubbed off on me. RIP Karen and may your family find strength in your everlasting life.

Olivia Anonas

March 17, 2019

Karen has touched so many of our lives with her big heart. Her bright soul impacting us beyond a fleeting moment, making it impossible to ever be forgotten. Thank you for God's grace to have spent time with Karen, to have known her and for all the good memories we've shared. I will treasure the moments we had during her final journey that she and her family graciously let me be part of. It will not be the same without you and it will be hard to fill your shoes not just in the office, but in the world. You will certainly be missed. The world grieves but heaven has welcomed its newest angel, and from there, we know you will be smiling over us.