Barry McNamara  |  Published December 13, 2023

‘I Gotta Have This Passport’

Dean Karen Ogorzalek completes decade-long journey to visit every presidential library, earning a special prize at the end.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College and United States presidents are linked in some very interesting ways, most notably the school’s 2000 Commencement address, which was delivered by the 41st chief executive, George H.W. Bush. His predecessor, Ronald Reagan, once lived just two blocks south of campus.

KAREN OGORZALEK: The dean of students has been a staff member at Monmouth since 1990. KAREN OGORZALEK: The dean of students has been a staff member at Monmouth since 1990.Now, there’s another College connection to the Oval Office, thanks to Dean of Students Karen Ogorzalek. The longtime student affairs administrator recently completed a decade-long goal of visiting each of the nation’s 15 presidential libraries.

In 1955, Congress legislated the Presidential Libraries Act, establishing a system of privately erected and federally maintained facilities for preserving and making accessible the papers, records and other historical materials of U.S. presidents.


‘I gotta have this passport’

In case anyone doubts Ogorzalek’s claim, she has proof. While visiting the presidential library closest to Monmouth (and also the oldest) – Herbert Hoover’s in West Branch, Iowa – Ogorzalek made a discovery.

“I saw that there was a passport book you could buy for $5, and you could get it stamped just like you would if you visited different countries with a regular passport,” she said. “I thought, ‘I gotta have this passport.’”

At that point, Ogorzalek had already been to Harry Truman’s presidential library in Independence, Missouri.

“I saw that there was a passport book you could buy for $5, and you could get it stamped just like you would if you visited different countries with a regular passport. I thought, ‘I gotta have this passport.’” – Karen Ogorzalek


“We had to go back there to get a stamp,” she said of herself and her regular travel companion, 1998 Monmouth grad Sarah Botkin, who, for many years, was in Ogorzalek’s line of work in student affairs. She’s now an events manager at Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Truman, in fact, was a starting point for Ogorzalek in another way, as, in 2012, she and Botkin visited his Little White House in Key West, Florida, the 34th president’s “winter White House.”

“It was on that trip that we decided we should visit all the libraries,” said Ogorzalek.

Doing so would take the duo coast to coast, as presidential libraries are spread out from California to Massachusetts, as well as Texas and the Midwest. The travelers would spend up to five hours at each location.

It was on a return trip to the U.S. southeast a decade later when Ogorzalek reached her goal. It came in Atlanta at Jimmy Carter’s presidential library, which immediately moved up her list as one of her favorites.

“There’s a lot of family at President Carter’s museum,” she said. “There’s also a lot about the Camp David peace talks (of 1978). There was even a display that talked about every other presidential library. That’s just who he was, the kind of person he was.”

“I told him I’d been to all of them, and he said, ‘No way!’ Then he flipped through every page of my passport, and he said, ‘You’ve really done them all. I‘ll be right back.’” – Karen Ogorzalek


Ogorzalek was also pleased to see a reference to how Carter’s famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech was featured in Miracle, a movie about the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, which memorably defeated the Soviet Union on its way to winning a gold medal during Carter’s presidency.

THE PRIZE: At Jimmy Carter's library in Atlanta, Ogorzalek received this coin, signifying her presence at every preside... THE PRIZE: At Jimmy Carter's library in Atlanta, Ogorzalek received this coin, signifying her presence at every presidential library.“When we got to the end of our visit, I knew I got something for being at all the libraries, so I said something to the staff member who was there,” said Ogorzalek. “I told him I’d been to all of them, and he said, ‘No way!’ Then he flipped through every page of my passport, and he said, ‘You’ve really done them all. I‘ll be right back.’ When he came back, he said, ‘On behalf of the National Archives and Records Administration, I would like to award you with this presidential coin.’ There was another couple there, and they applauded.”


Stirring emotions

One of Ogorzalek’s early favorite libraries was in Simi Valley, California.

“Reagan’s was the most emotional for me,” she said. “It was the only library I cried at. I’m getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it.”

All of the libraries, she said, have a piece of the Berlin wall, but it was Reagan, of course, who uttered the famous line in his 1987 Brandenburg Gate speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Ogorzalek and Botkin visited Richard Nixon’s library in Yorba Linda, California, on the same trip.

“There was a beautiful emerald necklace at Nixon’s library,” said Ogorzalek. “All of the gifts that presidents and their wives receive from leaders of other countries, they can’t keep them. They go into these permanent collections, and all of the libraries talked about those kinds of gifts.”

On the East Coast, the traveling companions visited John F. Kennedy’s library in Boston in 2017 during the centennial celebration of the 35th president’s birthday. On the same trip, they crossed off from the list Franklin Roosevelt’s library in Hyde Park, New York.

“I love history. There’s no way we would’ve learned everything we did by sitting in a classroom. People don’t take advantage of the history that’s all around them.” – Karen Ogorzalek


“One of the exhibits there had a list of soldiers from all over the place, and I saw the names of people from Alexis, Little York and Monmouth,” said Ogorzalek. “They were mostly Winbiglers and Simpsons. And there was also a display about the Japanese internment camps. It was very emotional to walk through that.”

Ogorzalek believes there is no substitute for firsthand experiences with history.

ALSO IN ATLANTA: Among the items that caught Ogorzalek's eye at Jimmy Carter's library was this composite portrait ... ALSO IN ATLANTA: Among the items that caught Ogorzalek's eye at Jimmy Carter's library was this composite portrait of the 39th president.“I love history,” she said. “There’s no way we would’ve learned everything we did by sitting in a classroom. People don’t take advantage of the history that’s all around them. I spent part of my youth in New England, and I never went to places like Plymouth Rock or Salem.”

In one memorable moment, Ogorzalek reached out and touched history in a different way.

“I was just coming back from maternity leave after having our second child,” she said of Bush’s visit to Monmouth in the spring of 2000. “I’d only been back to work since May 1. For the ceremony, I stood at my normal place by the Monmouth College sign. As President Bush walked to the end of his recessional, I shook his hand. He didn’t see the step there, so I kind of caught him. I saved the President from falling.”

Which, in a sense, proved one of her points about what she learned from visiting the libraries.

“They’re real people,” she said. “Like them or not like them, they’ve shaped our lives. At all the libraries, I learned there’s more to a president than what the media tells us about them. I learned about them as a person. I like to get to know a person, and I want my version of who they are, not what somebody tells me I should think. At these libraries, you get to pick and choose what resonates with you.”

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