Her Life

Her Family

Husband: William Van Plew (married 1966 - 45 years)

Children: Lisa Marie Van Plew-Cid (Ryan), Juliana Leigh Sweet (Don),
               Kristen Joy Poniatowski (Scott), Jonathan William Van Plew

Grandchildren: Alexandria Sweet, Brittney Sweet, Julian Van Plew-Cid,
                        Viviana Van Plew-Cid, Jonathan Van Plew, Jr., Samuel 

Parents: Anders and Alice Carsten

Siblings: Richard Carsten (brother), Elsa Carsten Przybysz (sister)


She Was Organic
From an early age, Karen showed promise as an artist. She was always doodling something. But she really got serious when she entered 9th grade at Chicago Vocational High School. She choose CVS because of its art program, even though she should have gone to Morgan Park High School based upon her Aberdeen Street address. For four years, she was drilled in the basics of art and design by her demanding art teacher, Ms. Merril Lyon. She expected everyone’s best and did not accept anything less. It was a challenging time for Karen, but through it all, she won several awards for her designs and posters and ended up being awarded a full National Scholastic Magazine scholarship to Illinois Wesleyan University.

AT IWU, she discovered painting and printmaking as new, organic forms of expression and creativity.  She also embraced modern dance as another form of creative expression. Following marriage, she dabbled in lapidary and jewelry making while they were in the military, taking advantage of the excellent craft shop facilities on the military base. She also tried her hand at drawing and watercolor. But her true talent was as a designer.

Examples of her work are posted in the gallery area of this website.


On Being Mor Mor

(to be published soon.)

Harbert Cottage

Endless Summers

(to be published soon.)


Caring Calls
Karen always enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom and was willing to forgo life’s nicer things in order to have the time with her children as they were growing up. But times were changing, and the kids were all getting older and more independent. In her 30s, she began to consider the need to go to work to supplement the family income. After thoroughly considering her options, she decided to become a nurse. It was a natural choice for her. As a mom, she had made it her business to learn how to care for the health needs of her children. She equipped herself with medical reference books and fervently studied them. She asked a lot of questions. She became so knowledgeable about diagnosing and treating that all of her friends, and their friends, would turn to Karen for help and advice. Also, her sister, Elsa, was a nurse.

She needed to return to school at the College of DuPage to get her RN certification. It was a two year program. But first, she needed to complete some per-requisite courses, which added an additional year. But the only way she would go for it was if her best friend, Penny Smith (Laing), would go through the program with her. Penny agreed and off they went on a great adventure that required each other's support to succeed. At first, returning to college was difficult. But she found she had more focus then when she was younger. She completed her prerequisite courses on schedule, then she and Penny entered the nursing program in 1981. It was tough - tougher then she had imagined. At times she felt like quitting. But with the support of her husband and children, and most of all Penny, she not only made it through, but she did it with honors. In May, 1984, they graduated and a short while later passed their state board exams. They were licensed Registered Nurses.

But after all of her hard work and perseverance, she was not up to initiating a job search. Finally, Penny marched her over to Central DuPage Hospital where she was already working to apply for a job opening in the psychiatric department. She got the job, along with Penny, and kept it for 26 years until she retired in October, 2011. During that time she worked all different shifts and alternating weekends, which she didn’t like because it cut into her summers at Harbert cottage. But mostly, she enjoyed her work and grew as a nurse. Her colleagues, who were like another family, would observe how she changed many lives for the better. Her compassion knew no boundaries. Her humor was an elixir. Her astrological insights into people were mystifyingly accurate.



Girlfriends and Soulmates

(to be published soon.)


On Being A Mom

Daughter Juliana --
My Mom was destined to be a Mother. She had the instincts, the heart, and the ability. She knew when and how to be loving and when times called for a firm hand. She knew what we needed before we knew it for ourselves. She knew I needed a hug even when that was the last thing I thought I wanted. She knew how to provide for our needs – emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually. She had the ability to make me smile and laugh when I just wanted to be miserable. She knew the perfect thing to say when I needed it the most. She knew when to hold me close and when to let me fly. She would tell me things I needed even when I did not want to hear them. She was nurturing, loving, forgiving, strong, mercurial and supportive. She helped me to understand myself better and the human condition. She taught me about faith and unconditional love. She taught me to look for the good in people and in life. I know compassion because of her. She taught me that emotions are fickled and they are constantly changing. She taught me that anything was possible in life if I just believed in myself and worked hard. She believed me to be smart, beautiful, funny, a giver, a good Mom-daughter and friend, a faithful servant, capable, loving and kind. She helped me become the person, the wife, and the mother that I am. She taught me to always put my best foot forward and to not take life so seriously. She was the perfect Mother for me - the perfect friend. I am truly who I am today because of her. Her love, dedication, compassion, caring and determination are what I will carry with me always. My love for her and her belief in me is what will hopefully keep me going forward in life. I can only pray that because of everything she gave and taught me I will be a person, wife, mother and friend that life and people will remember as kind and worthy of their love, friendship and existence in their lives. Her legacy will live on in me and all those she has touched.

Military Life

The Army & Vietnam
Bill received his draft notice for the U.S. Army immediately following college graduation in May, 1966. Rather than being drafted as a rifleman, Bill enlisted for an extra year and chose to be trained as a military journalist. By enlisting, he also qualified for a six-month delay in reporting for duty that would allow Karen and him some time to adjust to married life. After moving Karen back in with her parents in Chicago, he reported to the army induction center in Chicago on January 6, 1967. Karen continued to work at the HR art studio in Chicago.

Following basic training, Bill received orders to report to Journalism School at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was one of the few military training assignments that allowed trainees to live off post. Following a two week leave in Chicago together, they headed to Indianapolis.They settled into a small efficiency apartment just off post. Bill spent the next ten weeks going to class in the morning and coming home to Karen at the end of the day. Karen busied herself with part-time work through a temporary help agency. On weekends, they would explore Indianapolis, including the Indy 500 race track. It was a nurturing time for their relationship.

Following Journalism School, Bill received orders to report to the 2nd Training Brigade at Fort Jackson, South Carolina just outside of Columbia, the state capital. After a 30-day leave in Chicago, they packed up their 1963 Dodge Polaris and a U-Haul trailer with everything they owned and headed to Columbia. Neither had spent much time in the south and they needed to look up South Carolina in the Atlas. They spent the first week there looking for a furnished apartment. When they couldn’t find anything that they could afford, they settled on a one-bedroom, unfurnished apartment in Myron Manor, just outside the south gate of Ft. Jackson. Rent was $63 a month. They were able to purchase the furniture they needed, including a bed and mattress, for $285 and pay it off on time. Bill reported to duty as a Public Information Specialist (PIO) while Karen set up housekeeping and made friends at Myron Manor, which was filled with many other soldiers’ wives. Eventually, Karen took a job as a cashier at a local K-Mart. For a while, she also tried her hand at selling Holiday Magic cosmetics door-to-door, but found that she was a better talker than seller. Life was good. They took advantage of the many post amenities including shopping, crafts, recreation and entertainment. Medical care was also free. They entertained friends in their apartment and took many long weekend trips to Charleston, Savannah and Hilton Head as family and friends came to visit.

In July of 1968, Karen became pregnant with Lisa. In preparation for her birth, they moved to a two-bedroom apartment a few blocks away in Myron Manor. Rent was $72 month. By then, Bill had been promoted to Specialist E5. Life was still good. Then, with just about a year left on his service obligation, Bill received orders for Vietnam. He would have to leave before Lisa was born. That prospect was devastating. They tried appealing to anyone and everyone they thought could influence a decision not to send him. Even though the military once had a policy to delay overseas deployment until the baby was born, it was changed by the Vietnam conflict. Congressmen, Karen’s doctor, the post chaplain, even Bill's commander were not able to intercede. He had to report to his new unit in Vietnam by January 29, 1969. He received a 30-day leave before his report date, which they used to move Karen back to Chicago to stay with her parents and celebrated Christmas. They also redecorated Karen’s old bedroom into a nursery. Bill left for Vietnam in the middle of January. After a few delays upon arriving “in-country”, he settled into his new job with the 69th Signal Battalion at Camp Gaylor on Tan Son Nhut airbase just outside Saigon. Karen went about preparing for Lisa’s birth by watching her diet and reading her Dr. Spock baby book and writing endless letters to Bill. She took occasional trips to Glen Ellyn where she would stay with Bill’s parents for a while. They provided some diversion from her daily routine. On March 7, Lisa was born at Chicago Osteopathic Hospital with Karen’s mother by her side. Bill was notified of her birth by the Red Cross. Even though Karen would join Bill for a brief week of R&R in Hawaii that July, by their agreement, Lisa remained at home in Chicago. Bill wouldn’t meet Lisa until his return from Vietnam the day after Christmas. The time Bill spent in Vietnam was hard on both of them. For Bill, it was because he was away from Karen and Lisa. For Karen, it was not only because she missed Bill, but because she faced ridicule because Bill was a soldier in an unpopular war.

On Christmas Day, 1969 Bill left Vietnam and the U.S. Army for good. He was honorably discharged. The war was behind them and the rest of their life was in front of them. Life was good again.

Getting Married

Starting Life With Bill
In early 1964, Karen accepted Bill’s TKE fraternity lavaliere. Being "lavaliered" signified going steady. A year later, they were "pinned" - she accepted Bill’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity pin on her birthday. This signified that they were engaged to be engaged. When she accepted his pin - the entire fraternity house showed up at her dormitory at Illinois Wesleyan University one night after hours and serenaded her in the courtyard by singing "The Sweetheart of TKE" while she and Bill held hands and kissed in front of all his fraternity brothers and her dorm-mates. It was very romantic. (She later had the pin made into a charm for her bracelet). On Christmas Day,1965, Bill proposed to Karen in front of her parents and sister. She said yes.

Wedding showers were held for Karen and Bill by Karen’s mother and Bill’s mother. Bachelor and bachelorette parties were also held by friends and resulted in no consequences except good fun. They were married on July 30, 1966 at St. Mathews Lutheran Church in Chicago. Karen had five bridesmaids including her sister, Elsa, as Maid of Honor, Bill’s sister, Doreen, her Sister-In-Law, Victoria, and two college roommates, Rena and Barbara. The groomsmen included Gib, Bill’s high school buddy as Best Man, Richard, his brother-in-law, fraternity brothers Bob and Allan, and another high school buddy, Rick. Karen was the most beautiful bride ever, fitting into a $50 wedding dress that she made look like a designer original with her 21 inch waist and Marilyn Monroe looks. Over 200 people attended the wedding. Bill was so excited to make Karen his wife that he run down the isle following the ceremony with Karen in tow.

The reception was held at the South Side Swedish Club and couldn’t have been more perfect. It was so much fun that Karen and Bill had to be kicked out at midnight to begin their honeymoon. First stop was the 50th On The Lake motel to spend their wedding night. Even though it was supposed to be a fancy place, they spent the night waiting for room service, which finally arrived in a bag so late that they fell asleep without eating it.

The next day they headed to Karen’s house for a quick change and to pick up their luggage for their honeymoon at the Wagon Wheel Resort in Rockton, Wisconsin. But first, they spent the day in Chicago having lunch at a favorite restaurant, doing a little shopping with their wedding gift money (they bought a Polaroid camera) and taking in a movie. The week at the Wagon Wheel was very romantic and fun. They splurged on room service and the tropical pool bar complete with exotic birds flying around. They enjoyed romantic meals at the resort restaurants, live theatre productions and their first experience with golf. But most of all, they enjoyed each other.

Following their honeymoon, they moved into their first apartment, which was in a 6-flat in Glendale Heights, a western suburb of Chicago. Bill had grown up in the adjoining town of Glen Ellyn and wanted Karen to experience the suburbs. He had taken a marketing/advertising job with EG Home Centers in nearby West Chicago, while Karen commuted to her art studio job in Chicago on the West Line train from Glen Ellyn. While living at the 6-flat they began a long-term friendship with their newly wed neighbors across the hall, Kathy and Kenny Weinstock.

During this time, America’s commitment to the Vietnam conflict was increasing. Young men were being drafted into military service. Bill had received his draft notice shortly after college graduation and decided to enlist instead. Even though this meant a three-year commitment instead of two, it allowed him to select the military job he would do. It also qualified him for a six-month deferment before reporting for duty. The deferment provided some time for Karen and him to get used to married life before he had to report for training. It was a tense and intense wait, but they made the best of it. On January 6, 1967, Bill reported for military duty after helping Karen move back into her parent’s home in Chicago. 

College Days

Illinois Wesleyan Life
Karen went off to college in September, 1963 on a full tuition/room and board art scholarship to Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington. She earned the scholarship from National Scholastic Magazine by beating out all the other applicants from Chicago Vocational High School with her outstanding art portfolio. She was 17 when she arrived at Southwest Hall. Her sister, Elsa, was already a coed at Illinois State Normal University just down the road.

She experienced the same trials and tribulations adjusting to college life as many other young girls who had come before. She loved the new found independence and dorm life with her new girlfriends, but found it hard to discipline herself to only focus on her studies. She tried to get into her art studies, but found them “lacking” at the freshman level following the challenging years she had mastered at CVS. She also found that she attracted the attention of men – college and otherwise, and enjoyed an active social life while maintaining contact with boyfriends from her high school days. Eventually, she met Bill mid-point in her sophomore year. There was an instant attraction by both, although apparently happening at different times. Bill will recall it happened on first sight of Karen one evening in the student union. Karen recalled it being the day Bill walked into printmaking class, late –whistling. Karen would also model for figure drawing class, where she made an unforgettable impression on Bill as he spent minute after minute taking her in. As she tells it, she was also taking him in the whole time. They also spent uncounted hours together in printmaking class and in Bill’s studio working on their artwork.

Eventually, they started dating and spending a lot of time together as kindred spirits. Since Bill was in a fraternity, they had many opportunities for an active social life. At one point, Karen was named to the Tau Kappa Epsilon sweetheart court and eventually chosen as the fraternity sweetheart.

As a sophomore, Karen began to excel at her artwork, but she still wasn’t satisfied. Her art orientation and training was on the commercial side. Wesleyan catered more to the fine art side - painting, drawing, sculpture, etc; things one needed to be a teacher. She was a designer by heart. Plus, she was increasingly finding herself uninterested in the academic side of college. Ultimately, after giving a good go of it, she decided drop out of college at the end of her sophomore year and return to Chicago to work in a commercial art studio. Additionally, her relationship with Bill had become serious enough to consider marriage, so going to work would afford an opportunity to put some money away.

Although, she no longer was a student, Karen would regularly come to Wesleyan on weekends to be with Bill until he got his undergraduate degree in May, 1966. While there, she would stay with girlfriends at the dormitory and maintain those relationships. She would also attend fraternity social functions with Bill. Many hours were also spent assisting Bill with his many fraternity and class projects, including helping him prepare for his senior art show.

Early Years

Growing Up
Karen grew up on Aberdeen Street on the south side of Chicago with her parents, Anders and Alice Carsten, her brother Richard, born in 1942, and her sister Elsa, born in 1944 and the family dog, Poyka. Her father emigrated to the U.S. from Sweden as a baby. Her mother was born in Chicago of Swedish parents. They meet at the Chicago World’s Fair. Karen was born on March 11, 1946 at Evangelical Hospital in Chicago. Shortly after she was born, her mother slipped on the floor in the kitchen and broke her hip. As a result, Karen spent the first six months of her life living in the hospital where she was raised by nurses and doctors. It was observed that Karen liked the doctors so much that she would cry just to make them come and give her attention. Growing up, Karen liked to play with dolls and stuffed animals – until she discovered boys. Then she would just play with boys. When she was eleven, she suffered a horrific sledding accident that landed her in the hospital again for a few months. At first life-threatening, she recovered from her injuries, but had residual effects for the rest of her life. From a very young age on into her teens, she spent every summer with her mother, brother and sister at the family cottage in Harbert, Michigan where she had a different circle of friends then those in the city. Her days were filled with endless mornings of play and afternoons on the beach off Lake Michigan just a few blocks away. Karen’s dad grew up with Bob Radke, a family friend, and on occasion the Carsten family would visit the Radke family in Glen Ellyn. They lived one block away from where Bill grew up. Ironically, Bill’s brother dated one of the Radke girls and it is presumed that Karen and Bill first met each other there as children.

School Days
Karen attended Fort Dearborn elementary school. She was a bright student and was eventually put ahead one semester. She then attended Chicago Vocational High School from 1959-1963 where she was a cheerleader, along with her sister. Dick Butkus was a member of the CVS football team then. She also was on the water ballet team. During that time she also took a photography class at the Illinois Institute of Technology where she would wander the back streets of Chicago on her own taking photos. Her greatest achievements at CVS, however, were through her artwork under the ever demanding tutelage of art teacher Ms. Merrill Lyon. Karen won several awards for her posters and other designs. Her crowning achievement was being awarded a four-year, full scholarship to Illinois Wesleyan University from National Scholastic Magazine.