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Forging Her Own Path: Five Questions with Karen Manning

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When Karen Manning first started interviewing for jobs, she had to tell a little white lie to get the role she wanted. She had to pretend she couldn’t type.  

“It was frustrating looking for a job. If you were a woman, the first thing they would ask was if you could type,” says Manning, a Bronx native who graduated from Fordham’s Thomas More College in 1969. “I always said no, even though I could, because I wasn’t looking for a job as a secretary.”

She had been a math major before earning a degree in psychology, so she could say yes to interviewers’ second question: “Are you good at math?” That got her in the door at Connecticut General Life Insurance, where she began her career in the fledgling field of employee benefits management. 

Exploring unknown territory was something Manning had done before. As a member of only the second class of Thomas More College (TMC), the women’s liberal arts college on the Rose Hill campus, she was part of a group that changed the culture at Fordham. “We felt like we were trailblazers,” she said. “The guys in our year or the year before, they were used to women. But the ones two years ahead of us were kind of like, ‘Who are these people and why are they here?’”

The women of TMC were a more elite group, Manning says, with higher average SAT scores and GPAs. “The men didn’t like hearing that.” 

Like many of her fellow TMC alumnae, Manning is proud of that history. But she has always identified more with Fordham University than with TMC specifically. 

“Fordham wasn’t ready to say they were coed. But we basically had most of our classes together,” Manning explains. “I had gone to an all-girls Catholic high school, and one of the reasons I wanted to go to Fordham was because there were guys there. I had a brother who was a year older than me, so I was very comfortable being around guys as friends, not just to look at who I was going to date.”

It was that feeling of kinship with the entire Class of 1969 that drew her to stay involved as an alumna. She’s helped plan her milestone reunions for many years—including her upcoming 50th Jubilee on May 31 through June 2—has supported scholarships for students, and served on a TMC/Fordham College at Rose Hill alumni board for seven years. That’s also how she met her husband, Jim Coffran, GABELLI ’67. Though they had overlapped at Fordham, they only met in 1986, at a Christmas party for alumni volunteers.

They now live in Surprise, Arizona, an area of the country Manning discovered during her 13 years as vice president of benefits at American Express, which brought her all over Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States. They started living there part time after Manning retired 14 years ago, and though there are many New Yorkers in the area (including a few of their Fordham friends), they come back to the East Coast every summer. 

“I could never give up my New York connections,” Manning says. 

What are you most passionate about?
Trying to give back to help those less fortunate. I feel very blessed to have what I have, especially considering where I came from—growing up in a small apartment in the Bronx, sharing a room with my brother. I think everyone should give back and remember where they came from. Over the years, I have volunteered with different organizations and contributed to charities that support things that I care about. Currently I volunteer at a food bank here in Arizona. A group of us pick citrus fruit that the food bank turns into juice and distributes to the needy. I have also cooked for soup kitchens, taught English as a second language, and was on the board of a nursing home watchdog organization. And it’s all very rewarding. I truly believe that by helping others, you always get back more than you give.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t remember getting a lot of verbal advice, but I was fortunate to have parents that showed me by example. They taught me to be responsible and to be concerned about other people, to not just focus on myself. My mom was very feisty and stood her ground when she needed to, but she was also always volunteering for things and supportive of everyone. I’ve always tried to do that.

What’s your favorite place in New York City? In the world?
I love all of New York, but my favorite place is the theater district. I have always loved going to the theater. There is always so much energy and excitement surrounding that area. My current favorite show is Hamilton, and I think it might be the best one I’ve ever seen.

I was fortunate to travel around the world both for business and pleasure, but my favorite place is close to where I currently live. It’s Sedona, Arizona. It’s a very special place. The majesty of the red rocks is awe-inspiring; it has a spiritual quality to it. I don’t think anyone can fully imagine how beautiful it is without seeing it. We love sharing it with anyone that visits us.

Name a book that has had a lasting influence on you.
To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. I read the book in high school and its message has stuck with me. I was so inspired by Atticus Finch’s integrity and his willingness to stand up for justice and the rights of other people. As I got older and became aware of the injustices and discrimination that people still experience, I tried to always be mindful about how I treated others and to stand up for my beliefs. I think we need more people like Atticus in the world today.

Who is the Fordham grad or professor you admire most?
Mary Higgins Clark. Mary was widowed at an early age and was left with five young children. Rather than feeling sorry for herself, she went back to school, started writing, and had a successful career. I have met Mary at several Fordham events through the years. Though she is a world-renowned author, she is so gracious and humble. She makes you feel like your conversation is very important to her. We also went to the same high school, Villa Maria. She seems to have stayed true to her Bronx roots.

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