Karen Jackman never imagined she would make it to BYU. “My family was poor,” she says. “But after some people [offered] me a debate scholarship, I [fell] in love with the university.”
She remembers looking across campus her first semester and thinking that if she had money, she would give it to BYU and find ways to enrich the surrounding valley.
“The idea of donating was kind of pie in the sky,” says Karen, now Karen Jackman Ashton (’66), cofounder of Utah’s Thanksgiving Point and organizer of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Orem, Utah. “Yet I saw BYU as a fountain of knowledge and spiritual goodness. It was so much more than an institution.”
She married Alan C. Ashton, and the couple began rearing a large family. Their circumstances changed when Alan cofounded the word-processing giant WordPerfect. Karen’s wish became reality as the couple found ways to support BYU and strengthen the Utah Valley community. Their BYU efforts include helping lead a highly successful capital campaign drive in the 1990s and later serving on the university’s President’s Leadership Council.
Karen Ashton’s contributions to the surrounding valley reflect her own love of words and nature as well as her desire to help create a vibrant community for her family.
A natural storyteller, Ashton says she can’t talk without telling a story. That interest led to a nationally renowned festival and an award-winning library.
In the late 1980s, Ashton had for many years been telling stories to preschoolers at the Orem Public Library, where they were relegated to a basement with bad lighting, no heating, and—worse—no bathrooms.
“We really needed to create awareness for a children’s library,” she says. Orem had been planning one but was short on funds and other support. So Ashton signed on as president of the Friends of the Orem Public Library and started raising money.
“We were excited when we earned $200 from a bake sale,” she says. “But that obviously wasn’t going to get us our library. We needed something more.”
The answer was a storytelling festival. Ashton had read about such an event in Tennessee and decided to attend the festival for ideas.
“I fully expected to see little old ladies telling variations of Little Red Riding Hood,” she says. “Well, there were some of the folktales and fairy tales I expected, but I also heard wonderful historical stories and tales from around the world. There were yarns and legends and fables for all ages.” Eight months later, her committee launched the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
The first year, in 1989, the Ashtons and their neighbors established areas in their yards for story groupings. It required mowing a few fields and moving some livestock, but Orem launched the festival with three national storytellers and some local performers. The festival was a hit and has grown every year for two decades. Today, more than 26,000 attend related events throughout the year. The main festival takes place each Labor Day weekend at Mt. Timpanogos Park, a large recreation area in Provo Canyon built with the festival in mind.
“I like to watch people have a wonderful experience,” Ashton says. “This festival brings all kinds of people together to share their stories.”
Along with private donations, proceeds from the festival helped build the children’s wing of the library.
In the 1990s the Ashtons decided to give Utah another gift. They established Thanksgiving Point, a cultural gathering place that would host public events, a golf course, restaurants, a dinosaur museum, and activities designed for unique learning experiences. With a passion for gardens, Karen provided the momentum for a stunning 55-acre botanical garden.
“If I don’t go outside every day and see the sun, trees, grass, water, and flowers, I languish,” she says. “I planned this garden to feed my soul and to feed the souls of others.”
She also runs a company called Little Wonders with her son Brigham. They buy small, abandoned houses and make them like new. “We usually sell them at a loss, but we reclaim [them] and make them beautiful. Also, I like to help young families find a home.”
Ashton’s family lies at the core of her philanthropy. “I did storytelling for my children and the gardens for my grandchildren,” she says. “And now I’m working with one of my children. Motherhood has given me the greatest creative library.”