Karen was born on January 9, 1940 in Sheridan, Wyoming, to Gordon and Lillian Johnson. She was the second of three children, an older brother Richard, and a younger sister Sandy. In 1941, the family moved to the Rattlesnake area of Missoula, Montana, on Missoula Avenue. After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, the family moved to the Seattle area where their dad got a job in the Bremerton Shipyard, repairing ships damaged in the war. The war dominated their lives, as it did everyone else.
After the war ended, the family moved back to Missoula in 1946, bought one half acre on Reserve Street and built a two-story Cape Cod style house. With only four houses on Reserve Street between Mount and South Avenue, where their dad built their new home, Karen and her siblings could play in the surrounding fields. Karen and Sandy could push their baby buggies up and down Reserve Street without seeing many cars or trucks. They also tried to ride the cows in the fields beside the property when the cows were resting and chewing their cud. The cows, however, lurched up and tumbled them to the ground as soon as they climbed aboard. An old abandoned stage coach at the east edge of the property encouraged them to get on it and pretend they were pioneers driving out West. Across the street to the west they could see Fort Missoula and a small group of tipis, so they often played cowboys and Indians out in an empty field. Sometimes they were cowboys and sometimes Indians. They raised chickens and had a large garden. Karen and Sandy gathered the eggs and worked in the garden, planting, weeding and driving a small tractor their Dad had built.
Karen did not give up her desire to have fun. One day when she was about nine years old, she and Sandy were playing upstairs. Karen grabbed an umbrella, climbed out of the dormer window, opened up the umbrella and jumped off the roof, landing on the front lawn. She wasn't hurt, but as luck would have it, their mother happened to be looking out of a large
window when she saw her daughter sailing down from the sky under an umbrella. Karen did not ever try to do that again. Karen was one of a handful of children selected to turn over the first shovel of dirt at the new Roosevelt Elementary School. She attended Roosevelt Elementary from grade one through grade eight. She was popular, had a lot of friends, and was elected cheerleader in the eighth grade. She was also a member of the Campfire Girls, took piano lessons for several years, and participated in track in the eighth grade. In 1954, their dad
bought a small farm of fifty acres on Sweeney Creek, so they moved to Florence. Karen and Sandy attended Florence-Carlton School. Karen was elected cheerleader in her junior and senior years. Karen and Sandy finally got to ride their own horses. Karen rode an energetic sorrel quarter horse named Red and Sandy rode Monty, Richard’s horse; a larger but slower critter. In the summers, they rode all over the back roads and trails near Sweeney Creek. They also helped milk cows and put up hay. Karen graduated from Florence Carlton in 1958 and attended the University of Montana the following fall.
Karen moved to California for a short time and worked at Letterman Army Medical Center as a clerk, but Montana was her home, and she returned to Missoula, taking a job with Mountain Bell telephone company as a switchboard operator. In 1964, Karen accepted a clerk position in Thompson Falls, with the United States Forest Service. In 1965, daughter Lisa was born. In Thompson Falls, Karen met and married Bud Sorenson, and the family moved to the Sorenson Ranch on Cherry Creek. Bud and Karen welcomed a son, Shawn, in October of 1966. Karen continued her career with the Forest Service and worked the ranch with Bud. Like her parents, she always grew a large garden, canning and freezing vegetables for the family. Karen loved fishing and camping in the Cherry Creek area, as well as Thompson Lakes, Finley Flat, and Lake Mary Ronan. Karen and Bud would later divorce and Karen continued working for the Thompson Falls Ranger District for several years.
When a job with the Tongass National Forest in Ketchikan, Alaska opened, Karen took a leap of faith and moved to Alaska. Karen was asked by a co-worker in Ketchikan if she was interested in scuba diving, and she thought that it sounded like a great opportunity for adventure. She became a certified scuba diver and enjoyed telling stories about exploring beneath the Alaskan waters. She also played in the local women’s softball league. Karen loved the outdoors and when the opportunity arose for a job on Prince of Wales Island, with the Craig Ranger District, Karen became the district clerk. It was there that she met a commercial fisherman, who would become the last love of her life. Karen and Don Safford were married in Craig, Alaska in 1984. They had many adventures together on Don’s fishing boat, The Frances W; shrimping, jigging for snapper, lingcod, and halibut. Don and Karen built a beautiful home in Craig. Karen planted flowers for every season; tulips and daffodils in the spring; petunias, snapdragons, and roses grew all summer long. Karen’s son, Shawn, joined Don on the fishing boat for several summers, working as a deckhand during the commercial fishing season. Karen’s daughter Lisa, and husband Scott also joined the crew for a summer of commercial fishing.
Karen loved to stay in touch with family and friends. She never forgot a birthday, anniversary, or any other special occasion. Her Christmas mailing list was lengthy and often those very same folks received cards and a note throughout the year.
In 2002, Karen and Don retired and bought a home in Hot Springs, Montana. Never one to be idle, Karen joined the Hot Springs Artists Society, worked out with the ladies at Cavallinis, and spent every spring planting flowers in the hanging baskets on Main Street, in the park, and at Evergreen Rehabilitation Center. Karen and Don spent several summers following the Mission Valley Mariners baseball team, and fall/winter following the Savage-Horsemen football and wrestling teams, watching their grandsons, Chris and Kyle. Later, they would enjoy watching their grandson Jase play football and wrestle for the Thompson Falls Blue Hawks. When the grandkids were finished with sports, Don and Karen would travel to Plains to watch their great-grandchildren play softball and baseball. Don and Karen loved picnics and barbecues at Shawn and Leah’s cabin on the Clark Fork River, the Sorenson Ranch in Thompson Falls, as well as Scott and Lisa’s home in Plains. Karen’s greatest joy was spending time with family.
Karen passed away on April 2, 2023 at Evergreen Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Hot Springs, Montana. She was preceded in death by her parents Gordon and Lillian, and niece, Holly Mueller. She is survived by her husband Don, sister Sandra Johnson, brother Richard Johnson, daughter Lisa, son-in-law Scott Brown of Plains, MT, son Shawn, daughter-in-law Leah Sorenson of Thompson Falls, MT. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren Chris (Cassie), Lily, Myah Brown, Butte, MT; Kyle (Trista) Teirainy Bellinger, Tia Bellinger, Kiara and Gavin Brown, Plains, MT; Tawny (Logan), Ariana Hill, Boise, ID; Ryne (Kaytlin) Jacob, Sayla Sorenson, Thompson Falls, MT; Caleb (Susie) Natalie Sorenson, Missoula,MT; Jase Sorenson, Thompson Falls, MT, and some very special nieces and nephews. At Karen’s request, there will be no funeral. A private family gathering will be held later this summer.
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