Ron Catoe (left) and Debbie Murray (right) welcome visitors to experience Karen’s Park at 315 5th Avenue, named for the late Karen Means, upon its completion in October. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Downtown Attalla is honoring one of its own in October, dedicating a profound memorial that mirrors a beautiful life.
Shielded between two buildings, where a crumbling foundation once stood, 314 5th Avenue now harbors a dwelling place for a community to remember, reflect and renew its perspective on what truly matters most.
In the upcoming weeks, 5th Avenue’s pocket park will welcome residents to enjoy its charming space, while discovering the incredible inspiration that fostered its inception – a woman whose life personified kindness, generosity and grace: Karen Means.
Karen’s Park namesake and Attalla native Karen graduated from Etowah High School in 1967, serving many summers during her teenage years at the Etowah County Board of Education before becoming the church secretary for First Baptist Church of Attalla. While working at the Attalla Board of Education, Karen dedicated 24 years as an administrative assistant to superintendents Billy Rains and Danny Golden.
Karen’s genuine nature and true heart of service arose from her unwavering faith. As a sincere Christian, Karen’s love for Christ illuminated as a bright light to all who knew her, shining as a beacon and an example for everyone she met. For 49 years she attended First Baptist of Attalla, where she taught Sunday school in the children’s department, developing relationships with fellow members as her own family.
Devotion – in all aspects of Karen’s life – and benevolence prove two qualities that encompassed everything she touched with her gentle hand. From her career to her faith to her family, the woman whose humble persona stepped aside from the limelight brightened every room. Karen’s love for her husband, Attalla Mayor Larry Means, children and grandchildren emerged as evident in each moment she cherished with them.
Means shared that while Karen did not care for politics, she always supported him in his political endeavors, never once complaining. His gratitude for her encouragement and voice of reason will forever continue steadfast.
Means reflected on his parents’ traditional upbringing that often hindered them from vocalizing their feelings openly, something he and Karen wanted to change for their own marriage. While he knew that his parents loved one another, Means, Karen and their children made a point to express their love and appreciation for each other – something Karen exemplified each day.
Although Karen passed away in February of 2019 due to Alzheimer’s disease, her memory remains alive in all who knew and loved her. Karen’s Park emerges as a tribute to a woman worth remembering, a representation of a pillar of her community and city.
“Karen was the sweetest person I’ve ever known in my life,” said Means. “People liked Karen more than they did me; I always say I don’t know what she was doing with me. We were blessed enough to have her mentally for a couple of years before she died. People going through what we went through with her…I do tell people to appreciate [their loved ones] while they’re here and not take them for granted. Don’t let somebody get gone before you realize [how important they are].”
The idea for Karen’s Park sprouted when Attalla resident Ron Catoe stood alongside Means at 5th Avenue, amongst the rubble of a torn down building. The pair discussed the lot’s future, considering the increasing lumber prices and the expense of developing another building on the site. Catoe’s thoughts led him down a different path.
Although Catoe had never previously witnessed a pocket park in person, he visualized its contribution to the city and began researching examples. As he brainstormed, sketched blueprints and collected his concepts, he knew that this park must personify more than a patch of grass.
“I didn’t want to have just another park – I wanted to have a park with a purpose,” said Catoe, referencing that Attalla already houses a few parks and walking trails. “It had to mean something. Karen’s life meant something…to the city, to the mayor and her family. I wanted to have a memorial park for the people who can no longer remember.”
Karen’s impression on Catoe proved so profound that in just the few moments he recalled speaking with her, he understood her as a person of substance. When he decided the park’s purpose would align with remembrance, Karen entered his mind, and her name proved the perfect title for the park. Catoe ensured he had the Means’ family’s blessing before presenting the concept before the Attalla City Council, which approved the park wholeheartedly.
“It’s very humbling that they would do something like that,” said Means of the park, who was surprised, honored and incredibly moved when he received the news. “I didn’t know they were going to do it. To know my wife, she would say, ‘They shouldn’t have done that…but boy, it sure is pretty, though.’”
Karen’s Park coincides with another great passion in Karen’s life – gardening. From daylight to dark on numerous occasions, passersby could spot Karen working in her yard, tending to plants. Karen’s Park will feature an extensive array of picturesque foliage and flowers chosen with precision and acute detail. A grand tree with a seating wall, tables and chairs, swings and a stage complete for entertainment join the endless assortment of plants that abound in the park. Several blossoms, including lookalike Forget-Me-Nots that are more responsive to the environment, pay homage to the importance of memory. Catoe incorporated hues of purple throughout the park, a shade he discovered through research is the last color those with Alzheimer’s forget.
“Not only will the park be a memorial, but it’s also a place to meet,” said Catoe. “When we have Heritage Day, it will be a good place people can go sit and eat. I’ve created a place in the back where food trucks can come park and plug in. I think the community will make good use of it. It will catch on.”
Karen’s experience with Alzheimer’s proves one of several throughout the City of Attalla, with many city employees directly affected by the disease. Debbie Murray, another instrumental figure in the park’s creation, shared that her mother had dementia and Debby Carden’s mother, who was a beloved best friend of Karen, also recently passed away with Alzheimer’s.
“I think that means something to everybody,” said Murray, on the purpose behind the park.
A memorial wall with bricks dedicated to loved ones stands as yet another tribute found within the park. The project is currently accepting commemorative bricks through its Buy A Brick Program, the proceeds of which contribute to Karen’s Park. 1,020 spots are available for names, with Catoe and Murray emphasizing that the names appearing on the wall do not reflect those who endured Alzheimer’s or dementia alone, but any loved one whose family wishes to remember.
While the park provides a peaceful gathering place for Attalla, it parallels the comfort Karen nurtured through her caring heart and the love she radiated. As Karen’s name joins the hundreds of others engraved on the park’s wall, visitors will witness the people whose lives influenced something beautiful – an enduring space enriched with memories that will never be forgotten.
“Everybody in this area that knew Karen loved her,” said Murray. “She had the biggest heart; she loved everybody. Her kindness – you could see it.”
Karen’s Park will celebrate its official opening with a ribbon cutting on Sunday, October 10 at 2 p.m. For more information on how to purchase a brick for the Memory Wall, visit https://www.attallacity.org/buy-a-brick-program/.