Keeping up Point Loma lighthouses is a bright spot for maritime history lover Karen Scanlon
Karen Scanlon loves the ocean — and she has her childhood librarian to thank.
“One day she gave me the book ‘Titanic’ and I was hooked,” Scanlon said.
Though Scanlon, who grew up in Ohio, quickly developed a love for maritime history, it wasn’t until she was 22 that she serendipitously
ended up living by the water.
After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Ohio State University before transferring to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where her mother and stepfather lived. There she met her husband, Tom, who was a third-year medical student.
“He joined the Navy his senior year and the Navy moved us to San Diego,” Scanlon said. “And golly, what a big town, what a big city for me. ... I wouldn’t even drive up Genesee [Avenue] — I was afraid I’d get lost!”
Scanlon continued her studies, intending to become a physical education teacher. But shortly after moving to San Diego, “a crazy thing happened” that changed her life.
“I needed a kidney transplant. I spent eight years on rental dialysis and I hated it,” Scanlon said.
She persevered — even teaching aerobic dance during that time — and received a successful kidney transplant from her older sister, Leanne.
After the surgery, Scanlon shifted gears and started taking classes in early-childhood education at San Diego Mesa College.
Throughout her life in San Diego, she worked on and off as a teacher, balancing the job with raising two children and pursuing her passion for writing.
“I am not a trained, professional writer,” she said. “I just can’t not put words to a page.”
Eventually, Scanlon permanently walked away from her job in education when Tom got sick with a neurodegenerative disease. He died from the illness. But Scanlon has stayed positive — and busy.
These days, she is a certified lay minister in the United Methodist Church, serves on the board of the La Playa Trail Association in Point Loma and volunteers at Cabrillo National Monument, where for 15 years she and her twin sister, Kim Fahlen, have been tending to two lighthouses, including the iconic Old Point Loma Lighthouse.
“I love the study of lighthouses and San Diego’s maritime history ... the bug bit me completely,” Scanlon said.
Every six to eight weeks, the sister duo heads to Point Loma to clean the lighthouses’ lenses, lanterns and windows. With both of them working, the task takes six hours.
“It’s hard work. I always say, ‘We don’t [clean] our windows at home but we do at the lighthouse; what’s wrong with us?’” Scanlon said with a laugh.
Though Scanlon and Fahlen don’t have a passion for cleaning, they find caring for the lighthouses, along with sharing their history, to be a rewarding experience.
“That’s where my heart is today,” Scanlon said.
Cabrillo National Monument, at the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula, is one of San Diego’s most popular attractions.
Scanlon has written several articles for the Maritime Museum of San Diego and co-authored a book with Fahlen in 2008 titled “Lighthouses of San Diego.” Through her research, Scanlon has been able to find and interview nine adult children of former San Diego lighthouse keepers and document their untold stories.
“What we have been able to save might have been lost otherwise,” she said. “These kids grew up in lighthouses really not thinking it was anything special.”
COVID-19 has resulted in health and safety restrictions at Cabrillo National Monument, distancing Scanlon and Fahlen from their second home.
“We’ve cleaned [the lighthouses] twice in a year, which just kills us,” Scanlon said.
Though she’s eager to get back to the lighthouses, Scanlon has tried to make the most out of the stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. Early on, she and neighbor Meghan Craig formed the Clairemont COVID Cruisers, a crew of cyclists who ride through their neighborhood every afternoon to exercise and lift their spirits during quarantine.
With riders ranging in age from 5 to 81, Scanlon calls the group “an unlikely alliance.” That term became the title of a short story she wrote about the experience, which was published recently as part of the San Diego Decameron Project, a collection of pandemic stories by San Diego County residents.
“I feel like I’m back in this classroom with these kids. ... In these rides, there’s teaching, there’s learning, there’s playfulness,” Scanlon said. “It’s getting us away from our pandemic seclusion. It’s just been a really fun thing for me to get out and have that social time where we’re out in the air, somewhat safe.”
Whether facing a global pandemic or a critical illness, Scanlon has a strong sense of optimism and graciousness about her experiences teaching, writing and volunteering.
“I’ve had such an incredible life ... but, of course, my love is always maritime history,” she said.
Despite her passion for the sea, it turns out Scanlon prefers to experience it from afar.
“I’m so chicken about the ocean,” she said, laughing. “I don’t want to be on or in it. I just want to be looking at it.”