Friendly faces in familiar places: Kari Lempka

Alexandrian finds value in the bigger picture through experiences of military training, family, illness and business ownership

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Alexandria resident Kari Lempka leans against the railing of her back porch. She and her husband grew up in the area and moved back about a year ago. (Jasmine Johnson / Echo Press)

The sum is greater than its parts.

That’s one theme threaded through many aspects of Alexandria resident Kari Lempka’s life.

Whether hiking through a forest trail, feeling the breeze run through her hair while riding a boat or hearing an orchestral piece stream through her headphones, she said she feels most content when engaging in these activities.

All of these remind Lempka of her smallness in relation to the world around her.

“It’s being in the presence of something greater than myself,” she said. “There is a bigger, more powerful force at work.”


Lempka, 44, pointed out that in nature, smaller leaves are part of a tree’s greater anatomy. And in the classical music she enjoys, a collection of sounds, pieces and people come together to create a song.

“The time, energy and effort it took for all these people to become an expert in what they do,” Lempka said. “The symbiosis of the combination is so much greater than the sum of its parts.”

This idea of the whole being valued above the individual has manifested itself in Lempka’s life beyond her hobbies and pastimes.

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Kari Lempka smiles for her senior photo at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. (Contributed photo)

Persevering through degree, training

Lempka’s initial motivation to go into the Air Force was for the scholarships, and she wanted to do something out of the norm from the rest of her classmates.

“I didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing, and that was definitely different,” she said.


So when she received an appointment to the Air Force Academy, she chose that path.

During her time there, Lempka said her work ethic, perseverance and faith were each strengthened.

“Although my parents had done a really good job of teaching me from a young age, it was time for me to make those my own,” she said.

Air Force Academy graduates have their schooling completely paid for, but they also have a commitment back to the military.

As a first-year student, Lempka had to jump in and learn how to balance seven college courses along with military training and intramural sports, and her instructors focused on breaking her and her classmates down.

“They do that on purpose, and it is all for a plan,” Lempka said. “So they can build you together with your team and really form a new you.”

Returning to family roots

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree and being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, she married her high school sweetheart, Scott Lempka.

Lempka and her husband moved to many different places around the country before she completed her five-year commitment.


They stayed in Spokane, Wash., for longer than the other moves because her husband was advancing in the school district. From helping launch a nontraditional teaching model to advancing in administrative roles, Lempka’s husband reached the point where he was interviewing for principal positions.

“It was at that time where we decided, ‘You know what, if we don’t move back to Alexandria now, we probably won’t,” she said.

More than that, the family draw became too important for them to deny. Both of their parents still resided in Alexandria, so being near extended family outweighed staying in Spokane.

“We liked it there, too, but this was the ultimate goal,” Lempka said.

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From left to right, Rosemary, Kari, Charlotte, Dean and Scott Lempka gather for a family picture. (Contributed photo)

Figuring out what comes next

After leaving the military, Lempka spent a number of years at home taking care of her kids, but she continued to feel drawn to use her skills of logistics and communication.


Lempka found herself thinking, praying and wondering one thing.

What am I going to do when I have the opportunity to work again?

She tried a few different paths.

First, Lempka worked for Weight Watchers as an encourager and supporter.

She also took some classes in counseling and considered pursuing a master’s degree, but she realized that those work hours could interfere with family time in the evenings.

Lempka and her husband also went through foster care training and have hosted multiple children in their home.

“That has really changed our lives,” Lempka said. “We have learned to become much more open, much more flexible. We’ve had to learn to be more forgiving and more empathetic and more understanding, giving grace so much easier.”

Later on, Lempka had the opportunity to work at her daughter’s elementary school as the senior secretary, a role that included financial budgeting, purchasing and scheduling.


“The bigger picture business arm of the school, all of that went through me,” she said. “As far as the meat and potatoes of business, I had that experience of being in the school and doing that. I felt like I could do something like this.”

Battling an unexpected illness

A few years ago, Lempka thought she came down with a severe case of the flu. On the way home from dropping her son off at school, she thought to herself that she shouldn’t even be driving because of how sick she felt.

She let her husband know that she was staying home in bed, but he took her to the emergency room later that day because of how much she was vomiting.

After a trip to the clinic and some tests, Lempka didn’t have any answers.

“This ended up actually becoming a repeat story for me for months because nobody could figure out what was wrong with me,” she said.

She was hospitalized with pancreatitis three times without knowing what was causing it.

Lempka was then given some enzymes, which helped but didn’t solve the problem. She struggled with eating, so much so that she lost 30 pounds.

Lempka then went to the Mayo Clinic, but there were no answers there either. Even genetic testing showed there was nothing in her anatomy that looked out of place.


After talking with a geneticist at the University of Minnesota, Lempka finally received a diagnosis through testing: Cystic fibrosis.

Most people show signs and are diagnosed as infants or young children, but Lempka didn’t experience any symptoms until decades later.

Even though she wrestles with her diagnosis and its impact on her life, Lempka said she can still see the silver lining.

During the first year of questions, a prescription therapy breakthrough happened in the cystic fibrosis realm. With that timing, Lempka was able to try a brand new medicine, which helped her significantly. A few months later, an even better alternative was released.

“I just think that’s amazing how that timing worked out that I didn’t have to deal with it for 40 years, but now all of a sudden, it comes into my life that I’m having to deal with it, but shortly thereafter, there’s medicine I can take that really helps.”

After being on the receiving end of medicinal research, Lempka became more grateful for those who donate to organizations like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

“If all these people hadn’t all these years hadn’t been giving so that they can run these deep research studies and pay for all this so that they could develop these medications, I would not be benefiting from this right now,” she said.

Kari Lempka rings up customer purchases on May 18, 2020, the first day her new store, Sixth and Broadway Clothing and Decor, was open to the public after the COVID-19 lockdown last spring. (Echo Press file photo)

Becoming a business owner

Lempka had taken some free classes offered to veterans about how to start a business, thinking in the back of her mind that she’d like to launch her own one day.

When driving down Broadway Street on one of their family’s visits to Alexandria, Lempka noticed that the VS Designs Garden Gallery was going out of business. She was disappointed that the store was closing, but she knew the owner and understood that she was ready to retire.

Lempka had that passing thought and proceeded with her day. But the second time she drove past, a new idea popped into her head.

“The thought just kind of burst into my brain,” she said. “‘Kari, you could run that store! Maybe that’s something you should do.’”

After she called to see what the situation was, Lempka and her husband started the process of purchasing the business and the building.

Sixth and Broadway Clothing and Decor went through two months of restorative cleaning after damage from the downtown fire in February 2020 and had no choice but to remain closed when the lockdown was announced in March.

Lempka was left with plenty of business loans and no way to make a profit.

“The timing in all of this has been really hard for myself with COVID and everything, but looking back, I feel like this was just a blessing to me from God,” Lempka said. “I’ve looked for something like this for a really long long time, and I’ve been patiently waiting for an opportunity to be able to use my skills to bless other people.”

Incorporating encouragement of her co-workers and customers as a regular part of her job has become the highlight for Lempka.

“To have that opportunity everyday to be with this wonderful team and to bring a positive experience to the women in Alexandria looking for clothing,” she said. “It’s been a good and really growing experience.”

Lempka said customers have commented about how they love the atmosphere in the store, thankful for the comfort and help they’ve received in that space.

“I genuinely want to be a servant,” Lempka said. “I enjoy encouraging people. I enjoy seeing other people having a positive effect from an interaction with them.”

This is a part of "Friendly faces in familiar places," an occasional series telling the stories of the unique people that make up the Douglas County community through writing, photo and video. To nominate an individual to profile for this series, email Jasmine at

Jasmine Johnson joined the Echo Press staff in May 2020 as a general assignment reporter. She grew up in Becker, Minn., and later studied journalism and graphic design at Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minn.
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