MISSOULA — A brilliant spark of life went out on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018, as Karen Ward passed away in her sleep at age 71. Not one to let a speed bump like death slow her down, she will no doubt be telling jokes, playing cards, organizing dinner parties, writing hilarious Christmas cards, setting people up on dates, serving on committees, giving speeches, joining clubs, reading good books and enjoying gourmet food wherever her unstoppable spirit chooses to roam.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in New Jersey, she found her home in Missoula in the early 1980s. With an enormous passion for life, she was a natural born woman of action — a true doer. And do she did, earning two master’s degrees, serving as chair of the school board, loyally enforcing Missoula’s zoning and housing regulations as an employee with the Housing Authority and the City Planning department, becoming one of Montana’s few Distinguished Toastmasters, leading the Kiwanis club as President, constantly fighting for affordable housing, and generally being an all-around, wonderful human being. Among her many activities, she may have dedicated the most time to her work as a volunteer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She was a tireless advocate for those struggling with mental illness and their families.
Never the center of attention, Karen was always the life of the party — especially if it was a Halloween party. As her husband Keith always said, she loved people so much that if she met four people on the street she would assume it was a club and want to join. It’s no surprise she was the member of three book clubs, a spirituality group, a poetry group, a card group, a movie club, a gourmet club, a golf league, a bridge club, and the list goes on.
And did you hear the one about the blonde? Karen always had, even if she sometimes couldn’t remember the punchline. But in those cases, she’d usually remind you she was a natural blonde herself.
As much as she loved bringing people together — and she’d often remind friends she was responsible for matchmaking more than one marriage — a close second may have been food and travel. In her never ending adventures around the world, she would inevitably let TripAdvisor lead her to a new culinary paradise. As anyone who shared a meal with her knows, most bites of delicious food would lead to an ecstatic proclamation of “that’s the BEST thing I’ve ever tasted!”
Karen is survived by her loyal travel companion and husband, Keith Thurlkill. Her spirit will live on in her two sons Ryan and Blake Ward, Blake’s wife Anne, Keith’s children Stephanie Hiatt and Stuart Thurlkill, and Stuart’s wife Katie. She is also survived by her two brothers Jim and Jon Jaffe, and Jon’s family, Carol, Catherine and Sarah, as well as her former husband Al Ward. Finally, the one-of-a-kind Grandma KK leaves behind a loving army of grandchildren including Grace and Maggie (Blake), Jackson (Stephanie), and Caleb, Jenna and Brooke (Stuart).
To honor Karen’s memory, she asked that people go on a hike, enjoy a sunset, have a relaxing glass of wine, share a fabulous meal, go out with friends or do just about anything else that brings them joy. Those who want to remember her with a donation can help support the NAMI Client Emergency Fund, which provides direct support to people in crisis. Donations can be sent to the NAMI Missoula Client Emergency Fund, P.O. Box 5413, Missoula, MT 59806 or made through namimissoula.org/donations with instructions for the appropriate fund.
A celebration of Karen’s life will be held at the pavilion at Fort Missoula Regional Park on the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 2 from 2-4 p.m. Bring your favorite joke to share with friends.
For someone who loved to tell people about all the books, movies, articles and quotes that would “change their lives”, we all know it was really Karen’s friendship, love and presence that did all the changing. May her soul rest in peace, although rest wasn’t really in her vocabulary. Better yet may her soul stay busy teaching us all to savor every beautiful, uplifting, challenging, delicious, fun, scary, joyful and hilarious moment that life has to offer. That's how she would want it.