When she first began looking for work in the travel business in the early 1970s, Karen Louise Johnson couldn't get a job.
"Nobody wanted to hire her because she didn't have any experience," said her nephew, Steve Nelson.
She eventually caught on with a St. Paul travel firm as secretary and bookkeeper and rose through the ranks to become a co-owner. In 1989, she started Preferred Adventures Ltd. in St. Paul, a travel agency focused on international adventure and eco-tourism, and built it into an industry leader.
When she died Nov. 26 of breast cancer at the Pillars Hospice Home in Oakdale, Johnson, 69, of Mendota Heights, had visited all seven continents and more than 80 countries. Her passion for experiencing countries rather than just seeing them brought clients back again and again, said business partner Teri Waataja.
"One of the things that made her so good was her love of other cultures and interest in how other people lived," Waataja said.
Johnson grew up on an Oakdale farm and graduated from North St. Paul High School when she was 16. At the University of Minnesota she got a pilot's license and became one of the first women in the Flying Gophers aviation club.
She received a two-year degree from the U in 1962, and two years later married Ralph Johnson. She worked several years as a secretary and lab technician in health care before moving into the travel industry.
When the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce asked her in 1983 to chair a committee developing a tourism plan for Costa Rica, Johnson began a love affair with that country that never ended. "She found it to be a friendly place and big on adventure and nature," Nelson said.
She was founder and first president of Minnesota Executive Women in Tourism and was named a super-agent by Travel + Leisure magazine six times in the last 10 years.
Johnson also worked with several charities and nonprofit groups. She joined in missions to recover soldiers' remains in Papua New Guinea and put in hours at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport helping U.S. troops returning from war in the Middle East.
Johnson's husband, Ralph, died last year. She is survived by a sister, Judy Nelson, of Maple Grove, and a brother, Dick Magler, of Stillwater. A memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Jan. 7 at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, 2410 Stillwater Road E., Maplewood.