Karen May lived in Morro Bay before she died. | Courtesy Photo/Mustang News.

Celina Oseguera
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Sage restaurant supervisor and occasional helper at VG Cafe, Karen May died last Sunday night after being taken off life support following a heart attack, Sage and VG Cafe manager Margi Braden said. According to May’s daughter, Maren Carlson, she was 57 years old when she died.

Like every other Sage worker, Sage waitress and mathematics senior Holli Fotch received a text message the following Monday from the VG Cafe supervisor that said to come in and talk with her. After realizing they all got the same text, the Sage workers began to panic.

“Someone did bring up, ‘Oh, do you think Karen’s OK,’” Fotch said. “We all kind of had an idea but didn’t want to think it, of course.”

Fotch went to talk with the supervisor as soon as she could. When she arrived, she was told the news — May had died.

That was the moment Fotch started to cry.

“We all basically just started crying, every one of us,” Fotch said. “I mean, some people react different, like in shock because she was completely healthy, so it was very shocking.”

Because Fotch was one of the older Sage waitresses, she was still in contact with employees who had graduated and knew May. Fotch called to tell them the news.

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During the dinner shift that night, staff designated a room at the back of the restaurant as the mourning room for employees.

In that room sat something most people wouldn’t notice. It was the one thing that connected the employees back to May — candy.

“She would bring a bag of candy in and leave it for everyone to eat everyday,” Sage waitress and business and administration senior Noel Myers said.

The baker

May — a Central Valley native — was known for more than her daily candy delivery. She brought in baked goods for nearly every occasion, too.

“She made us these lemon cakes that were just to die for,” Myers said. “I’ll never have another lemon cake like that again.”

According to Myers, May always brought in treats for an employee if it was their birthday. She would give them baked goods and personalized gifts.

May gave Braden the same thing every year for her birthday — a bottle of wine.

“She always got me a bottle of wine, and when I drank it, I always thought of her,” Braden said. “I’d always tell her the next day how good it was and she was always happy because she never drank so she didn’t know she was buying the right stuff.”

The “momma” 

May’s maternal gestures and knack for baking helped earn her a nickname among the Sage workers — Momma Karen. Like a caring mother, she would take home the employees’ work shirts and aprons, iron and wash them, then bring them back fresh for them to wear, Braden said.

For Myers, May embodied the phrase “momma knows best.”

“She was, uh,” Myers said as she looked away and struggled to hold back tears. “She was the person that you’d go to when you’re having a bad day. Like, you don’t even have to say anything, she knows. She knows exactly what to say to fix it.”

May’s kindness and willingness to help was not constrained to the Sage family — she was the same with others she met and won their hearts that way.

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The worker

According to Braden, May was extremely dedicated to her work, a workaholic almost.

“If I needed her to work late over at VG’s, she would. If she needed to come in early for dinner she would come in, every banquet she set up perfectly,” she said. “Never called in sick one day. Never.”

When May wasn’t working at Sage, she was cleaning houses or taking on other jobs, Myers said.

“(May) used to always tell me, she would get mad at me and tell me I needed to slow down because I reminded her way too much of herself,” Myers laughed. “And I think that’s something we always had, a bond between us. We were very similar in that aspect. We worked too much.”

Remembering ‘Momma Karen’

There are comical memories of May some of the Sage staff hold close to their heart. For example, according to Myers, how much coffee she drank during shifts and the way she’d joke around with the workers. There are the more serious ones as well, ones that sound like they came straight out of “The Breakfast Club.”

“She did something beautiful,” Myers said. “She took a group of kids here that, out there, wouldn’t make sense together. Every employee here is different; we’re all so, so different, and she created a family. We may not be coping well, but we’re coping together.”


There will be a memorial service for Karen May at Mountainbrook Community Church on Jan. 11 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Mountainbrook Community Church is located at 1775 Calle Joaquin, San Luis Obispo.

There will be a celebration of life ceremony at Sage restaurant afterward, from 3 to 5 p.m. There will be an open mic to share stories about May.

Donations to build a memorial bench in honor of May can be sent to the following address:

Cal Poly Foundation
Building 15
1 Grand Avenue, San Luis Obispo CA 92407-0707

Correction: A previous version of this post implied employees voluntarily came to work after being told May had died. After talking with another Sage employee, it is unclear if the employees were expected to work Monday night and if they came in voluntarily.

The employee said they were required to work. Braden declined to comment. Cal Poly Corporation Human Resources also declined to comment.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated May was 58 when she died. It has been revised to say she was 57.

Join the Conversation


  1. So sad to hear about the loss of Karen. Though I did not know her personally, I remember the big smile on her face and the warm aura about her. She always made us feel like we had a home away from home here at Poly. She will be greatly miss by her Mustang Family <3

  2. Absolutely none of the employees at Sage wanted to work that night, myself included. After being led to believe that we were going to have the night off, they instead said that they couldn’t close and lose out on the money and that we would have to work regardless. It was one of, if not the hardest days of my life and Cal Poly Corporation’s management made it far worse.

      1. Dear Frustrated Sage Worker: This article was written as a memorial and tribute to AN AMAZING woman, who touched each and every one of our hearts. THIS IS NOT a complaint page for you to voice your frustrations. Your complaints should be dealt with in a more mature matter – like talking to your boss, in private. You should be ashamed that you couldn’t even write one nice thing about Karen, the whole reason this article is even on here is because of her. Instead you choose to be selfish and self-centered. Clearly Karen didn’t rub off on you.

        I am truly sorry to Karen’s family for this individuals response. It’s inappropriate. Karen was the woman who hired me – gave me my first job on campus. And she treated me like one of her own. I have never met someone so amazing and full of love — and someone so willing to share that gift with everyone she met.

        She will be so missed by everyone.

        1. Uh this person was saying that the article was wrong. It’s also a public article, so they are free to post that if they want. It’s not selfish to say that people were grieving and that the place made them still work. Considering that they said it was the hardest day of their life due to losing a friend, that IS expressing grief for the loss of her. Just because it’s not how YOU would express it does not make it wrong.

          1. Jane mustangs point was and still stands that this this article is to honor and respect Karen May, not to take out any pity disrespect that people may have for their personal companies. If they would like to do so in their own time in an appropriate manner than that is one thing. However, to deface a memorial to a beloved woman is a complete other disrespectful matter. Take your complaints elsewhere to where the family and loved ones of Karen May are not checking up upon.

  3. I had the honor of meeting Karen May seven years ago, when I first started my job at Campus Dining. I consider it a blessing that I was able to work next door to her for a bit, she in Einstein’s and myself in Jamba Juice. Karen May worked incredibly hard and loved her staff very very much. She set the bar when it came to kindness and caring, and no one did it more than she did, I think she loved so many so much it just wore her generous heart out……she was also incredibly grateful for her life, and lived EVERY DAY. An inspiration for us all. I will miss her very much.

    I could see her grace in the VGs and Sage leadership team a week ago when I sat quietly in the corner and admired their strength and compassion, I could see her grace as the Sage workers came in, some carrying bags of candy, offering to help however they could. Some just wanting to be present. Everyone doing what they could to help each other. Karen May would have been proud.

  4. I am happy that this article was written to commemorate Karen, but I just want to emphasize that she was so much more than a baker or workaholic. Karen was our “mom away from mom”. She made work feel like home and turned a group of coworkers into a family. The bond that Karen made with all of her “kids” at Sage far transcended the superficial relationship of boss and employee. We (all Sage’s former and current employees) feel that someone very important to our lives was taken from us unexpectedly and far too early. It will be a long grieving process for us all.

    I could not imagine being a current employee at Sage and being expected to work after receiving this terrible news. I know that the current employees did not voluntarily choose to work immediately after hearing of Karen’s death. It makes me sad for my friends that they were expected to work after such a tragic event in their lives. I know there is a lot of pressure on upper management and confusion about how to react to such unusual and tragic circumstances. With that being said, I am shocked that this article suggests that the Sage employees wanted to continue to work after receiving news of Karen’s death; this is a entirely false representation of the employees’ sentiments.

    I know that Sage management is very emotionally affected by the situation as well but I hope that more sensitivity is given to the employees in the future. My heart goes out to both my former coworkers and Sage’s upper management. I know everyone is deeply affected by Karen’s death and I encourage all of Sage’s faculty to exercise understanding, respect and empathy for one another. I think in times like this, where it’s hard to know how to handle a situation, it would benefit us all to ask ourselves, “What would Karen do?”. The world would be a better place if we could all be more like her.

    I thank God that I was lucky enough to know Karen. And to my Sage family I am so thankful that we are here to support each other through this. Stay strong guys <3

  5. In the long string of misery that characterized my Freshman year, Karen was one person who made Cal Poly feel more like home. I’m just one of the thousands that she has served during her time with campus dining, but I always loved seeing her. She never failed to brighten my day. I will always remember the way she called out “Michael, Dinner!” to alert someone that their food was ready, just like your own mom would at home. It sounds really simple, but I am sure that I was not the only lonely first year who found comfort in Karen’s love for her job and brightness towards students. I am truly saddened by this news.

  6. Karen was wonderful.

    As a RA, I had the pleasure of seeing Karen regularly for 3 years. She always greeted me with a hug, cared for my well-being, and enthusiastically recounted stories of her family. She made me feel like a celebrity each time I entered VGs, and her kindness cannot be overstated. As an out of state student, Karen felt like a family member and dear friend I always had nearby.

    I am blessed to have known Karen May.

  7. I met Karen once and she was a lovely woman full of life with a great smile. She will be dearly missed !

  8. Karen was the best person you could ever imagine, in such an unexpected work environment. VG’s/Sage was such an odd place, but Karen was a true joy to work with, and an absolutely unexpected joy in a place like that. I loved going to work knowing that when we crossed paths, she’d always smile and genuinely ask how you were. She knew so much about me in the 3 years I had worked there, that the night my now wife walked in and introduced herself, she had Katie in her arms embraced in a warm hug. This woman cared about people, connected with strangers in a way we should always remember. This woman was a gem, a truly loving person. Something we all ought to be more like. Share this story and connect with someone by looking up from your cell phone, tablet, television or other distractions and be a part of this world.

  9. Hi, my name is Sagan, one of Karen’s 4 kids.. Thank you for showing so much love & respect for our Momma..

    **We would like to invite all friends and family on Sunday January 11, 2015 to the memorial service for our Mom (Karen May) from 1:30-2:30pm at Mountainbrook Community Church, 1775 Calle Joaquin, San Luis Obispo. Followed by a celebration of life from 3:00-5:00pm at Sage Restaurant, 1 Grand Avenue, Cal Poly. San Luis Obispo.
    (There will be an open mic at Sage restaurant for all who want to talk or share stories)

    “To the world you may only be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”

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