Kari Qvigstad

Obituary of Kari Lisbeth Qvigstad

Kari Lisbeth Qvigstad, 62, passed away at home on March 4, 2024, surrounded by her husband and children. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in May of 2016 and was proud that she had lived nearly eight years with that diagnosis, three years longer the average life expectancy. In those eight years, she traveled to Bali, Fiji, Japan, Peru, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Egypt, Jordan, and Norway. She climbed the ruins of Machu Pichu, floated over the Valley of the Kings (and Queens) in a hot air balloon, hiked the ruins of Petra, renewed her love of Japan, and traced her Viking roots above the Arctic Circle. She was planning trips to Vietnam, Cambodia, the Antarctic, and cruise the coast of Europe at the time she passed away.


Kari was born December 21, 1961, the winter solstice, at Northgate Hospital in Seattle, Washington. Family lore claimed she was born to bring light to the darkness of winter, and for many winters, she did. By the time Kari entered public school in Shoreline, Washington, she spoke both Norwegian and English. In 1978, Kari was a Rotary Exchange Scholar living and attending school in Minowa, a small town near Nagano in central Japan. She fell deeply in love with the Japanese people, language, and culture. After graduating from Shoreline High School in 1980, she entered the University of Washington and enrolled in the University’s intensive Japanese language and literature program. She returned to Japan from 1983 through 1984 to study at Kansai University of Foreign Studies, where she received a degree in Japanese Studies. She also was awarded an Advanced Japanese Language Certification from the International Christian University of Tokyo in August 1983. 


She returned to the University of Washington and rushed through the requisite communications courses to graduate in 1985 with a double degree in Japanese Language and Literature, and Communications. In working toward her Communications degree, she became a part-time reporter for the weekly newspaper in Lynnwood, and then spent winter quarter in Olympia, covering the State Legislature for the UW Daily. Working in Olympia as a reporter, she found that journalism was not in her future, but the intern reporter for the Yakima Herald Republic was. On August 14, 1988, she married Jeff Fishel. 


Kari’s professional life focused on international trade and logistics. Her first job after graduating was with Universal Seafoods, a Japanese subsidiary of Nippon Suisan, Japan’s largest seafood company. Working in the marketing and sales department, she became familiar the logistics of product movement and placement. A year later, Kari began exploring other employment opportunities, specifically opportunities to use her expertise in Japanese language and culture. She found her opportunity in the Seattle branch of Kamigumi U.S.A., a freight forwarding company and major transportation company in Japan. She was initially hired to translate for the branch manager whose English skills were lacking. For the next five years, she became key to the office’s success, facilitating customer relations, learning the logistics of maritime trade, and becoming a licensed customs broker. She was recognized for her work and promoted to Vice-President of the branch. When her branch manager returned to Japan, Kari applied for his position but the prospect of a manager who was not Japanese and was a woman proved too far beyond tradition to be acceptable.


In 1990, she began working for Mountain Cold Storage, a new cold storage at the Port of Tacoma. Within a year, the cold storage was full and meeting revenue goals. Unfortunately, two years after opening a devastating fire nearly destroyed the building. Kari worked hard to regain the trust of former customers, and once the warehouse was full, the owner sold the company.


After helping the company transition to a new owner, Kari decided to go out on her own and become a mother. Kari gave birth to her son, Gabriel, on April 7, 1994, and for the next two years, she enjoyed being a first-time mother as she worked to develop her consulting business, helping clients develop overseas markets. One of her customers was the Port of Olympia, which needed a marketing plan. In 1996, after the Port went through some significant management changes, the new Executive Director hired Kari to implement her plan. Three months later, she was permanently installed as the director of marketing and business development – the youngest and first female director in the Port’s 75-year history. And on October 4th of that year, Kari had her second child, a daughter, AnnElise. Life was good.


Her initial work for the Port focused on two disparate goals: increasing revenue for the marine terminal and building community support for Port operations. To increase revenue from the marine terminal, she worked with customers local and abroad, bringing everything from logs to wind turbines through the Port. To build community support, she created community events such as Sand in the City and Harbor Days. She also joined the boards of the Hands On Children’s Museum, Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Visitor & Convention Bureau, and the Olympia Downtown Association. Her work for the Port tapped all of Kari’s skills: leadership and vision to keep the Port vital; networking throughout the world to bring in customers; and communicating with local, state, and national officials to support the Port’s mission.


In 2011, after 15 years at the Port of Olympia, Kari once again went out on her own, specifically to advise small Ports on business and strategic development. Kari ended her career at the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services as Business Development Manager charged with making the Department’s various services competitive with the private sector.


Kari lived in three worlds. Her parents, Kirsten and Wilhelm, emigrated from Norway and raised her, her older brother and younger sister in the traditions and language of northern Norway. She was a proud Norwegian American who wore her bunad at the Norwegian 17th of May parades, at Christmas and Norwegian functions. She was most proud to pass on her heritage to her children, teaching them children's songs, Norwegian folk tales, and how to toast at the table. When Kari's daughter, AnnElise, became the Queen of the Sons of Norway Lodge in Ballard, Kari was recovering from surgery to replace cancerous vertebrae. Celebrating her reign as Queen made Kari proud that her Norwegian legacy will pass on.


Kari was also Japanese. She found similarities between Japan and Norway. Both countries were narrow with rocky shorelines and depended on the sea for much of their food and trade. Japanese culture brought her a serenity she treasured. She owned two kimonos, which she wore while studying and performing tea ceremony with the Urasenke Foundation in the tea house in the University Arboretum’s Japanese Garden, in Seattle. While in Japan, she also studied flower arranging, calligraphy, and sumi-e painting. But most of all, she learned the flavors and subtleties of Japanese cuisine.


And Kari was an American woman: independent, entrepreneurial, and, at times, brash. The lessons of how to establish and keep relationships she learned in Japan, she tailored to doing business in America. She loved traveling and developing relationships that brought business to the Port of Olympia, and the State of Washington. A woman working in the maritime trades, she learned to hold her own and gain the respect of the men she dealt with.


Cooking was her way of connecting her worlds. She would cook and eat any kind of fish, bake seven kinds of Norwegian cookies at Christmas, make sushi and seaweed salad, and loved barbequed ribs and salmon. She had recipes handed down from her mother and grandmother, from her Japanese host mothers, from her travels, and from a wide collection of cookbooks. Her family was well-fed and eventually succumbed to her exotic tastes.


Kari loved greatly and widely. She maintained her friendships from when she was a girl, a sorority sister at Kappa Delta at the University, a co-worker, a businesswoman, and on her travels. She was always willing to meet new people, particularly as part of an adventure to new places. But at home, she loved being a mother, attending performances and concerts, and going on family trips, camping, hiking, and skiing. As she lived with cancer, she found needed love and support from her church community and fellow cancer travelers. She knew she was loved and she loved deeply in return.


Kari is survived by her husband, Jeff Fishel; son, Gabriel; daughter, AnnElise; mother, Kirsten Qvigstad; brother, Nils (Joan) Qvigstad; sister, Tina Baumgartner; aunt, Hanna Helmersen; sisters-in-law, Morgan (Bill) Barry and Lee Fertitta; nephews, Karl (Becca), Kory (Mandy) Qvigstad, Joseph Stryker, Josh Barry (Kosue), Toby, Jacob, and Timothy Fishel; niece, Stef Fertitta; and grand-nephew, Nolan Qvigstad. She was preceded in death by her father, Wilhelm Qvigstad; and her uncle, Jaltar Helmersen.

A Celebration of Life for Kari is planned for Saturday, April 6, 2024,11:00 a.m., at The United Churches of Olympia, 110 11th Ave. SE, Olympia, WA 98501. A reception will follow the service.


In lieu of flowers, and if you wish to commemorate Kari, contributions may be made in Kari’s name to:


--Harmony Hills Retreat Center for Metastatic Cancer Retreats, Giving by clicking HERE.  (Cite Kari’s name to ensure your donation goes to the correct fund.)


--The United Churches of Olympia’s Music and Arts Fund by clicking HERE. (Be sure to mention Kari’s name.)


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