Karen Ferchen passed away at home on August 5, 2023 in Cheyenne. She was with her husband, Duane, and son, Matt.
Karen and Duane had been married 58 years, having first fallen in love in their nearby hometowns in western New York. Family lore has it that Karen and Duane were dating each other’s best friends and one evening on a double date Duane reached under the table and grabbed Karen’s hand. While Karen and Duane’s relationship would thrive for nearly six decades after their marriage in 1965, those other friendships were a bit less long-lived.
Karen and Duane first lived in the Twin Cities in Minnesota and eventually moved to Conrad and then Missoula, Montana. In Conrad, Karen gave birth to three children, Matt and the twins Debbie and Nora. Born prematurely, Nora died at birth and Debbie was developmentally delayed. But the whole family pitched in with Debbie’s care and Karen became devoted to special needs education not just for Debbie but eventually for children in every community in which she lived. Second maybe only to Debbie, Karen was also widely and affectionately known as a world-class hugger.
Karen, Duane, Matt and Debbie moved to Cheyenne in 1983. Shortly after, in 1985, Karen joined STRIDE learning center, a preschool devoted to children with special needs. At STRIDE, Karen did a little bit of everything, from writing grants to making sure the pantry was well stocked. She loved her time with the children, their families, and her devoted co-workers. Karen was especially fond of helping organize the annual STRIDE Ride charitable event, Harleys and all.
Throughout her partnership with Duane, Karen also wore the hat of pastor’s wife. Karen was always supportive of Duane and his pastoral ministry, including attendance at many a Scandinavian Lutheran-style potluck with their various casseroles. But she was also an active leader in many charitable and community activities supported by the church congregations she and Duane served. In Cheyenne, Karen was devoted to the congregations and their missions at Ascension Lutheran Church and Highlands Presbyterian Church, where she always had her favorite spot in her favorite pew. When her lungs were still healthy, no one sang hymns with more gusto than Karen. And after Duane retired and had taken an interim position in Billings, Montana, Karen took many an overnight Greyhound bus trip up to support and be with him.
Before she herself retired, Karen had already become quite a world traveler. It began with some family trips to Scotland and England, then tours with Duane to Germany and the Baltics, including to St. Petersburg, Russia. When her son Matt decided to pursue educational and career opportunities abroad, including in China, Karen was deeply supportive. Karen and Duane visited Matt in China in 2001 and then Karen came again to travel with Matt to China and Japan in 2016. Karen loved to tell the story of how on a kayak trip on her first visit to China she somehow managed to sink the kayak. The next day, already missing a shoe from the kayak incident, Karen went in flip-flops with Matt for an overly ambitious cave expedition.
Even after her friends had to back out of their plans to join Karen in China to teach English for a month and Matt had to attend a conference, she stayed on her own and had a wonderful experience with the students. And of course she squeezed in as many hugs as she could, with the students quickly adapting to her infectious kindness. Also while on her own teaching in China, Karen befriended an American couple on holiday; it turned out it was the US military attaché to China and his wife who were getting a breather after tense negotiations over a mid-air collision of US and Chinese jets. The couple told Karen they would look out for Matt in Beijing and even invited him for Christmas dinner that year. As a result of these travels, and of Matt’s prodigious gift buying, Karen also became a bit of a fashion plate with her many colorful outfits, bags and purses from around the world. She proudly wore those on every occasion she could and was happy to tell the story of each and every item.
After retiring from STRIDE, Karen devoted herself to volunteering at Davis Hospice Center in Cheyenne. There, she enjoyed cooking for patients and speaking with them about their life stories. She also led bereavement groups and spoke for hours on the phone with family members about their loved ones. Building on her own experiences grieving for her daughters Nora, and later Debbie, but also on seemingly endless sense of both empathy and sympathy, volunteering at Hospice was a near perfect fit for Karen and everyone she met there.
Even when she herself became ill with a lung disease known as MAC (Mycobacterium avium complex) and deeply regretted no longer being able to volunteer at Davis, Karen was as devoted as ever to speaking with or writing cards to her family and friends. Even amidst her own health struggles, she would spend much of her day writing handwritten notes of support or sympathy on carefully chosen stationary. Karen’s love and friendship to so many throughout the years was also returned in ways small and large, including by her devoted nephew and niece Dave and Lori Taylor and the many friends and family members who supported and cared for her when she needed it the most. Karen loved to look at the watercolor paintings that her daughter-in-law, Wen, sent regularly to cheer Karen’s day. And throughout her life, nothing brought Karen more joy than the hours-long, laughter-filled talks with her sister Nora. No matter who it was, though, the thing Karen always looked forward to the most was a big old hug.
Karen will be remembered as someone who loved unconditionally and gave more to this world than she took. She will be deeply missed.