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