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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU's Karen Polonko Remembered as Passionate Advocate for Children

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Karen Polonko, University Professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion, and a nationally recognized scholar in the prevention of child abuse, died Aug. 22 after a year-long battle with cancer. She was 66.

Polonko was the first Old Dominion faculty member to win the Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia, in 1991. She also was named Virginia Professor of the Year in 1993.

Polonko established the student organization In Support of Children in 1990. The group, which holds annual vigils to remember victims of child abuse, created the motto "It's never OK to hit a child," which has spread worldwide.

"It's a terrible loss and a tough way to begin the year," said Dana Heller, interim dean of the College of Arts & Letters and a longtime friend. "Karen was very much respected and loved, by students and colleagues alike. Her compassionate and dedicated work on behalf of children will ensure that her legacy lives on."

Old Dominion President John R. Broderick met Polonko shortly after arriving at the University, following her SCHEV award. He said they became good friends.

"Not only was she nationally known for her research and teaching, she also had one of the best senses of humor of anyone I have met," President Broderick said. "Her work on the protection of children was such an important contribution to our society. She will be really missed."

Polonko joined Old Dominion's Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice in 1983, achieving the rank of University Professor in 1991. She was a scholar who challenged and an activist who sought to bring about social change.

Polonko was active in the early days of the ODU Women's Caucus and helped develop the early forward-looking policy on sexual harassment and others on gender equity in the workplace. She was also a leader in curriculum development, spearheading the development of the interdisciplinary minor in children's rights.

"Karen knew that every second of life matters and should not be wasted. She felt that you should spend your time empowering others, so that they can do the same," said Lou Lombardo, professor emeritus of sociology and criminal justice, and a longtime friend.

Polonko received the Outstanding Advocate award from the Virginia Governor's Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect. She won a lifetime achievement award from The Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University of Chicago. She also received numerous teaching and research awards at the University.

Students were a focus for Polonko throughout her career, Lombardo said.

"Though she always demanded of them the highest quality work, she was truly loved by them. She always gave the time and effort necessary to help them learn new ways of understanding the world and its problems. She would spend time, energy and her own resources to help students with personal problems and conflicts, maintaining close connections over decades."

Polonko is survived by her sister Isle of Hardwick, New Jersey, her sister Jacqueline of Brooklyn, New York, and her twin brother, Dennis, of East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Funeral services will be held at Galloway and Crane Funeral Home, 101 S. Finley Ave., Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Viewings will be held on Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. and at 9 a.m. Saturday, with services beginning at 10 a.m.

In lieu of flowers, Polonko requested that donations be made in her name to In Support of Children. Donations can be sent to the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice through the Old Dominion University Office of Development at 4417 Monarch Way 4th Floor, Norfolk, Virginia 23529. Online donations can be made through the ODU Educational Foundation with the notation "In Memory of Karen A. Polonko, In Support of Children" in the comment section.

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