After graduating from NIU in December 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, Karen Joens worked in advertising, radio and other jobs while most of her college friends were pursuing careers, getting married and starting families.
The Lombard native decided to take a leap of faith and leave Illinois.
“I just thought it would be cool to live someplace else,” she says. “I picked Seattle because it has the arts and culture of a big city combined with incredible mountain and ocean scenery.”
Meanwhile, Carl Johnson, who grew up in Logan, Utah, near the campus of Utah State University, where his father taught as a professor of forestry, was serving a 25-year hitch in the U.S. Army.
He graduated from Utah State in 1977 and 1978 with degrees in music education and music performance; the recipient of an ROTC scholarship then accepted his commission as an Army officer. Upon retirement, he worked nearly 10 years for a defense contractor hired to destroy a huge chemical weapons stockpile in Utah.
That these two would somehow meet and marry – and that the football teams of their alma maters would accept invitations to battle in the Dec. 26 Poinsettia Bowl – would seem the stuff of Hollywood romantic comedies.
But life is funny.
Once in Seattle, Karen worked for a group of radio stations for a couple years and then with Princess Tours, the land-based affiliate to Princess Cruises. Never really having found a career that matched her degree, the time came for another leap.
“When in doubt, go back to school, right?” she says. “I went back to school for nursing.”
With the notion that nursing offered a meaningful career, Karen enrolled at Everett Community College in Washington and told friends that she expected to “be lonely – but fulfilled.”
“I joke about that,” she says, “because that’s exactly when I met Carl.”
During the summer of 2003, Karen traveled to Reno for a bowling tournament. She then chose to extend her vacation with a quick trip to Lake Tahoe for a day of pedaling along a mountain bike trail.
Also on the mountain that day were Carl Johnson and some of his family.
“We passed her, and she was walking her bike, looking like a very forlorn NIU graduate,” Carl laughs. “We chatted with her to make sure she was OK, and she insisted she was.”
“In my defense,” Karen interrupts, “I’m a Midwestern girl who comes from zero elevation and then lived in Seattle at sea level. This was 7,000 feet.”
As the day went on, Karen and the Johnsons crossed paths several more times, even stopping to take photos of each other. Karen and Carl then exchanged email addresses to share the pictures.
From there, dating, romance and a wedding blossomed.
“Carl is the smartest and kindest person I know,” Karen says. “One reason I fell in love with him is because he wasn’t a game player.”
They were married Christmas Eve of 2004 at the Snake River Overlook of Grand Teton National Park. “It was just us, two witnesses, a justice of the peace and the view,” Karen says.
Life today is based in Eagle Mountain, Utah, a 45-minute drive from downtown Salt Lake City and a little more than couple hours south of Logan.
Karen completed her nursing education at Salt Lake Community College; she was pregnant at graduation with Rachel, who is now 7. Although she passed the boards and her nursing license is current, she currently chooses to stay at home with her daughter.
Meanwhile, Carl, semi-retired and a cellist, spends his days as a substitute music and German teacher at nearby middle schools and high schools.
Since 2006, when Karen decided that the couple should run a half-marathon to help her shed the pregnancy pounds, they have completed 13.1-mile challenges in all 50 states and in every Canadian province.
“The thing that brought us together was the outdoors, which we both love,” Carl says. “We go hiking whenever we can, and love to ski in the winter.”
Their memories of the outdoors include plenty of college football games.
Carl’s family had season tickets to Aggies football and basketball when he was growing up, which included watching legendary defensive tackle Merlin Olsen on the field. “There were a lot of really good teams in that era,” he says.
Karen, who followed three of her five older siblings to DeKalb, attended NIU during the Bill Mallory years. The 1983 team, of course, won NIU’s first-ever Mid-American Conference title and went on to beat Cal State-Fullerton in the California Bowl.
She was in Huskie Stadium one bitterly cold and miserable day when Coach Mallory’s men had fallen behind.
“I have this rule in my head: Never leave a sporting event early because you never know what’s going to happen,” she says. “My friends didn’t care.”
By the time she and her roommates returned home to their townhouse, near the old Jungle bar, they learned that the Huskies had fought back and won. Fans rushed the field, tore down the goalpost and dragged it to the West Lagoon – a ritual that happened five times that magical season.
“That lent credence to my theory that it ain’t over ’til it’s over,” she says. “It would’ve been awesome to have been there, but of course, I wasn’t.”
Karen and Carl haven’t figured out yet where they will watch the Poinsettia Bowl. Carl wants to book airfare to San Diego.
“As soon as he heard that our alma maters were going to be in a bowl game, I could see the wheels spinning in his head, trying to figure out how we could go,” she says, adding that she knows that Utah’s proximity to California is likely to put more Aggies fans in the stands: “I wouldn’t care. I’d have no problem cheering at the top of my lungs for the Huskies in an Aggie crowd.”
Yet the tables might turn on Carl.
Karen’s mom is turning 80 this month, and the Johnson family already has airfare booked for Dec. 26 that brings them to Chicago. Should they stick with that plan, they’ll watch the game on a big-screen TV in the suburban home of Karen’s brother.
“That would be awesome, too, because Carl will be outnumbered and he’ll get it from both sides,” Karen says. “It’ll be funny. Carl and I like to tease each other a lot, and we’ll look for every opportunity to sing the praises of our respective schools and simultaneously cut down the other.”