My Mom, Mary Louise Johnson, passed away at 2 a.m. on Thursday, January 23, 2020, at Orchard Creek Supportive Care, where she had resided since 2016. She was 95.
I had planned on having Orchard Creek alert me when Mom’s body started shutting down, so that I could go be with her when she passed. However, she had other plans. While Mom’s earthly body had been failing her for the past year – and she had virtually no memory – she had none of the usual pre-death symptoms that would alert family to gather at her bedside and sit vigil. She was talking and eating a bit that day, and then left this earth on her own terms – peacefully in her sleep. That’s the best we can all hope for, right?
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Known as “M.L.” to her southern family, she was born on December 18, 1924, in Oil City, PA, to the late James and Mary Louise (Dempsey) Bohlken. James (“Pappy”) was a civil engineer, and Mary Louise (“Mammy”) was a true southern belle. Along with her sister, Jane, and their dog Pal, Mom spent the first part of her childhood in Memphis, Tennessee, where she and Aunt Jane were often called upon to be “flowers” or “animals” in the plays and musicals staged outdoors at Overton Park. I believe their address was 1685 Overton Park Ave., Overton, Tennessee. Zillow notes that this house was built in 1925, so that would be about right on the timing.
They were a happy family with lots of relatives, and Mom’s photo albums and scrapbooks are filled with photos of picnics, get-togethers and fun excursions. Here they are in Overton…
Mom often talked about the big house in Memphis where her grandmother lived. “Big porches all around,” she’d say. “And two kitchens.” As a civil engineer, Mom’s dad worked on steamboats on the Mississippi River, but also traveled to far-flung places like New Orleans and New York City. He often wrote notes home to let his family know when he’d be home, including postcards to his daughters.
I found this postcard in Mom’s scrapbooks. “Hi Sweetie Pie,” he wrote to Mom from Long Beach, California. “How’s Pappy’s daughter today? Fine, I hope. Take good care of mother and help all you can. Expect to be home sometime next week. Daddy.”
From Memphis, the Bohlkens moved to Arlington, Virginia, where Mom attended Washington-Lee High School, graduating in 1942. From the very beginning, she was a “people person” who loved participating in all sorts of things. Below is her senior photo in the 1942 Washington-Lee yearbook.
She was in Girl Reserves, Glee Club, Art Club, Gym Club, Latin Club, Auxiliary, Corporal, Red Cross Club, Debating Club and Dramatic Club. “Her sympathetic and helpful nature brings her many friends,” it notes, adding that she’s “tactful and helpful” and “earnest and sincere as the day is long.” Yep, that’s the Mom I knew.
After high school, Mom attended Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, for two years, where she was a member of Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority. Again, her photo albums are filled with photos of happy friends gathering in dorm rooms, on the lawn and elsewhere. Here’s one below. “A startling mass of humanity!” she wrote on this photo. She had the best photo captions. That’s Mom in the back right.
At Northwestern, she also met my dad, Walter Johnson, who had traveled from the family farm on the Old Mission Peninsula to study mechanical engineering there. To help pay for college, he worked as a night watchman on campus. Mom also worked on campus, as a switchboard operator on the night shift. You can see where this is going. Dad used to stop by the switchboard to “check on things,” and Mom always had a supply of her mom’s fried chicken on hand (the Bohlkens had a place in Evanston during this time, even though mom lived in the dorms).
Mom and Dad were married at Clarendon Methodist Church in Arlington, Virginia, on August 21, 1946. There is a long and twisty-turny story of how they eventually ended up together, which involves several beaus on her part, including a boy named Frank Foster, who graduated from Washington-Lee High School with Mom, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and who Mom intended to marry when he returned home. All of this is covered in Mom’s college diary, which I chronicled on Facebook a couple of years ago as “Mary’s College Days.”
It’s a fascinating WWII story, and when the dust settles a little, I plan to write about it from the beginning here on the Gazette. Stay tuned for that. I’ll just say that if one little thing had turned out differently, I wouldn’t be here writing this and these wedding photos never would have happened.
While Mom and Dad were married in 1946, there was a lot going on in the years from 1944 to 1946. Mom transferred from Northwestern University to Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia, where she studied nursing as part of the Nurse Cadet Corps, graduating in 1947. Meanwhile, Dad was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois and graduated from Annapolis in August 1945.
Here is the page from Mom’s diary where Dad asked her to marry him. Sort of. When I posted this on Facebook, we were all, “Did he actually ask her, or was it sort of a hypothetical thing?”
They, in fact, did NOT marry in the chapel at Annapolis that August, but did marry a year later in Arlington. And a year after that, in 1947, they moved north to the Old Mission Peninsula, where my Mom the city girl would become a farm wife and begin a life of devoted service to the OMP community.
I cannot imagine the culture shock of moving from her southern life with all sorts of friends and family around, to the Old Mission Peninsula, where she had to learn how to churn butter, milk cows, and live in a house with few amenities of modern life. I’m not even sure they had electricity in the old house across from our barn in Mapleton when she moved here. I asked her about that over the years, and she simply replied that Dad taught her everything she needed to know about farm life. But I’m guessing it was mostly Mom’s resilience and graceful ability to take whatever came her way that helped her during those early years.
As with every previous part of her life, she quickly became involved with various clubs and groups on the OMP, including the Old Mission Women’s Club, where she served as president a time or two, and Peninsula Community Library, where she volunteered and served on the board that secured the land on which the new library was recently built. Next time you’re at the library, check out the fireplace named in Mom’s honor. The mantel is made from a piece of wood from our barn.
She also found a home church at Old Mission Peninsula United Methodist Church (formerly Ogdensburg United Methodist Church), where she played the organ for more than 50 years. We used to joke that she volunteered to play the organ one day in the 1950s and ended up playing it for the next 50+ years.
She organized both adult and children’s choirs, and happily helped manage the bell choir that Rev. Laurie Haller started later on. Along with Jack and Kay Patton, Mom also attended the bell seminars at Bay View Association in Petoskey for a few summers.
Here’s a picture of the Ogdensburg junior choir, I believe in 1962. That’s Mom on the left, with Deni Hooper standing next to her. My brother, Dean Johnson, is in the back row, second from the right. I believe my sister Carol is in the front row, second from the right. If someone wants to map out who’s who and send it to me, [email protected], I’ll put all the names in.
Later on, she and Dad helped get the Old Mission Peninsula Historical Society going and were part of the crew that organized the move of the Hessler Log Home from its original location on Center Road to Lighthouse Park. Mom also loved working the Township elections. I’m sure partly because she got to see so many friends and neighbors come through the voting lines on those days.
And Mom didn’t leave her nurse’s training behind. She worked as a nurse at Munson Medical Center in the 1950s and 1960s, until her fourth child (me) came along, at which time she retired from nursing to raise kids and work on the farm. Here’s the Johnson family in our home in Old Mission sometime in the 1960s. I may have just gotten that stuffed dog for Christmas. I so loved that dog.
Mom also managed the strawberry field down from the barn, organizing all us kids and our friends to help pick strawberries, which we then loaded into our VW Bus and delivered around the area. We’d take our strawberry money and run over the fields and orchards to Watson’s store in Mapleton, where we’d buy candy cigarettes and tiny wax juice bottles.
Mom also loved working on the cherry shaker crew, especially hauling cherry tanks around with “her” 430 Case Tractor.
Here’s Mom picking apples at “The 40,” an apple orchard on the corner of Kroupa Road and Peninsula Drive that’s still part of Johnson Farms. That’s Dean’s dog, Duke, and my grandma, Stella Johnson, who lived in the house on the corner there.
Mom loved to read (Janice Holt Giles is a favorite author, along with Lillian Jackson Braun’s “Cat Who” books), garden, do crosswords and word games, work on quilts with her quilting friends, oil-paint, create beautiful ceramic pieces, and assorted other arts and crafts. We always had craft projects going at the house.
And she loved being outdoors. One of her favorite things to do was hop on the riding lawnmower and mow our big yard in Old Mission. She spent a lot of time on that mower. In the winter, they’d put a snowblower on the little tractor, and she’d go out in the morning and snowblow the driveway. Even though she was not a morning person. She was always a night owl, and during her years of nursing, loved working the night shift at the hospital, getting home just in time to get us kids off to school.
She loved old movies, especially musicals, and she was also an avid fan of all things science fiction, especially “Star Trek” (all the various TV incarnations and movies) and “Babylon 5.” She always said if they offered trips to space in her lifetime, she wanted to go. You almost made it, Mom.
She is survived by her sons; Dean (Laura) Johnson and Ward (Carol) Johnson, daughter Jane (Tim) Boursaw, daughter-in-law Terilee Johnson, son-in-law Stephen Lewis, and grandson-in-law Cory Reamer, all of the Old Mission Peninsula. She is also survived by seven grandchildren; Heatherlyn (Randy Stuck) Johnson, Danielle Lewis, Ryan Johnson, Shawn (Krystal) Johnson, Nicholas Johnson, Will Boursaw, and Marissa Boursaw; five great-grandchildren; Emmalyn Reamer, James Reamer, Olivia Johnson, Tre Hargrave, Landyn Hargrave, and many nieces and nephews.
She was preceded in death by her parents, her sister Jane Wingert, her husband Walter Johnson, and her daughter Carolyn (Stephen) Lewis.
Memorial Service Planned
A funeral service will take place at 12 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, at Old Mission Peninsula United Methodist Church, with a visitation one hour prior to the service. She’ll be laid to rest next to her husband at Ogdensburg Cemetery, adjacent to the church. A luncheon will be served at the church following the service and burial.
Memorial contributions may be directed to Peninsula Community Library, 2699 Island View Road, Traverse City, MI 49686, and Old Mission Peninsula United Methodist Church, 16426 Center Road, Traverse City, MI 49686.
The Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home and Cremations Services is serving our family (thanks so much for those lovely warm chocolate chip cookies when we met there the other day). Feel free to share a memory with our family by visiting Mom’s tribute page here.
Also, a big thanks to the team at Orchard Creek for taking such good care of Mom these past few years. She loved the Wednesday sing-alongs (and remembered all the words, despite her memory loss) with Mary Sue Wilkinson.
My Facebook friends are familiar with the videos I’ve posted over the years of Mom and me at Orchard Creek. Just little videos of us talking, singing and sharing life in her final years. I’ll leave you with these. Rest in peace, Mom. You’re home now, and we’ll see you on the other side.