Friends from past recall homeless woman's life

FORT WORTH -- Patti Nicholson hadn't seen Karen Shearhart in decades, but she sometimes wondered what happened to her old friend from Western Hills High School.

So, Nicholson said, it was stunning and sad to see Shearhart's yearbook photo in a recent Star-Telegram story about Shearhart, who died last month in her homeless camp.

"She was a such a sweet girl," Nicholson said. "You lose touch with people over time, and it breaks your heart the way things turned out."

Nicholson was among several of Shearhart's long-lost friends who attended a memorial for her Monday. As a candle burned in Shearhart's memory, those friends joined dozens of social service workers who had gotten to know Shearhart.

Many volunteers and outreach workers tried to help the homeless woman, but she had a mental illness and wanted to live outdoors, friends say.

In recent years, Shearhart, 56, wore bulky clothes, carried garbage bags and wore a wool cap, even in the summer. But friends had pictures depicting a brighter time in Shearhart's life. In one, she was a teen with long blond hair flowing past her shoulders as she rode a bicycle, smiling at the camera.

"She was just beautiful," said Julia Mclain, who knew Shearhart in high school. "So friendly and warm."

David Young, a former classmate, recalled sitting next to Shearhart in typing class. She often watched over his shoulder at what he typed and giggled until the teacher finally put them on opposite sides of the room, he said.

A teacher once asked the students what kind of animal they would like to be, he said. Shearhart said a koala bear. That's how she signed his yearbook, "Koala Bear," he said.

"So I would always call her Koala Bear," he said. "That's what I knew her by."

Shearhart's high school friends listened as several social service workers recounted meeting her and earning her trust. They talked of trying to get her to go to a shelter on cold nights and, when she refused, asking paramedics to check on her.

They spoke about taking Shearhart blankets and making sure that she had enough food.

Nicholson's eyes teared as she stood and addressed those workers and volunteers. "Thank you all for taking such good care of her," she said.

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689