His interests were many and varied; his friendships, deep and abiding; and among his personal passions, beside his devotion to family, was his dedication to improving public education.
When Carl Onken, formerly of Central Valley, passed away earlier this year, he left behind an impressive legacy of service, both to education and to his community.
A life in education
Born in 1940 in Tipton Iowa, Carl graduated high school second in his class and then attended Iowa State University, graduating in 1962 with a double major in English and Physics.
While at Iowa State, Carl met the love of his life, Mary Haak, and together they joined the Peace Corps in 1963.
Carl taught English at two boys’ secondary schools in Sierra Leone from 1965 to 1966. While working in the Peace Corps, Carl and Mary, were married in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1965. The couple subsequently had three children: Alexandra (born 1969), Christopher (born 1971) and Natasha (born 1977).
Returning to the United States, Carl joined Chase Manhattan Bank, working as a systems analyst for 35 years, achieving his MBA from NYU in 1973.
Settling in Central Valley in 1968, Carl started attending Monroe-Woodbury Board of Education meetings starting in the early 1970s. He ran for a seat on the M-W Board of Education, was elected in 1978, and served on the BOE for 21 years, including several years as board president.
Later elected to the Orange-Ulster BOCES Board, he served 29 years, also becoming board president, retiring from that post in June 2014. Carl joined the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) in 1997, serving two terms as state president.
Carl was coach and board member of the Monroe-Woodbury Girls Softball League from 1979 to 2009, and was also a coach and board member of the M-W Soccer League from its inception. He worked on numerous scholarship-benefit theatrical productions, as well as M-W Faculty Concerts. He joined Friends of Sierra Leone, a Peace Corps veterans’ group that supports humanitarian efforts in that country. He was that group’s newsletter editor until 2016.
In 2018, Carl and Mary moved to South Berwick, Maine to be closer to family. After a 20-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease, Carl passed away unexpectedly at their new home on June 6, 2019.
A wonderful life
To develop an accurate portrait of this special man, The Photo News reached out to friends, family members and associates. In the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," it is suggested that "no man is a failure who has friends." By that measure, Carl Onken’s life was a resounding success.
"Carl had more patience than anybody I have ever met, and a sense of optimism which taught me that good things come to those who wait. He was the epitome of a trusted leader, a generous friend, and an unabashed advocate for public education."
- Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association
"As a founding member of Orange County’s Interagency Collaboration Team, Carl represented O-U BOCES and was liaison to all Orange County school boards. We had a deep appreciation for his commitment, knowledge, and quiet enthusiasm."
- Chris Ashman, retired Orange County Commissioner of Mental Health
"Carl was an influential advocate for education in our community for countless years. While always soft-spoken, he was unwavering in his belief that supporting our schools was critical to everyone's future."
- Charlene Kelemen, retired principal and administrator, Monroe-Woodbury School District
"An ever-present figure at school board events, Carl was a steadfast and reliable individual. His service at the highest levels of public education in his town, county, and state proved he was a leader among leaders."
- Susan Doyle, retired executive director, the Orange County School Boards Association (OCSBA) and the Mid-Hudson School Study Council
"He was not flashy, he was not extravagant and he did not do what he did for awards or recognition. He was quiet and contemplative, gentle and quick-witted, level-headed and patient, smart and kind. Where he saw a need, he sought out solutions - he asked questions, he researched, and he was constantly learning.”
- Natasha Onken, daughter
“I will miss my father every day, but probably a little more when there is a funny observation to share, an obscure question to be answered, a crossword puzzle to do, and in quiet moments when I would just love to hear his opinion."