Madison woman celebrates 106 years of life, stories
By JANE UTECHT, Staff Reporter
A lot of people have been born on Oct. 9: John Lennon and his son, Sean. Sharon Osbourne. Former Sen. Trent Lott. Former NFL linebacker Mike Singletary. French composer Camille Saint-Saens. But none of them has lived as long as Jennie Johnson of Madison, who celebrates her 106th birthday on Wednesday (today).|
Johnson never thought she would live this long.
"I never even thought about it," she said. Instead, she just lived, for over a century, so she has a lot of stories to tell.
There's the sports story. She was born on a farm six miles west of Rutland, where she grew up with one sister and nine brothers. While she was in school in Rutland, she was one of the pioneers of girls' basketball in the state. She was on the 1925 Rutland team that lost to Java in the state finals. That earned her a spot in the S.D. State Basketball Hall of Fame.
There is the family story. Johnson said she didn't graduate from high school because her dad moved them out west to Okobojo (north of Pierre). She was married to Clarence Johnson in Pierre, by the governor nonetheless, she said. They had a son Roland and two girls, Norma and Ramona. The young family moved back to the Madison area, settling in Rutland by 1935. She now has a large extended family, with five generations at her 102nd birthday.
There's the story of life's work. Jennie and Clarence owned a grocery store and restaurant in Rutland. The Great Northern Railroad ran through town, and she remembers "the railroad men used to stop and eat there." She didn't have any one specialty, just "good meat and potatoes with carrots" and homemade soups.
Son Raymond said they used to sell roast pork or roast beef dinners for two bits (25 cents). She also remembers their chicken soup with onions, carrots and kale. "It was good," she said.
She also did a lot of sewing on her Singer sewing machine. "I miss that," she said. She crocheted a lot. "I tried to master tatting but couldn't do it."
Her husband became postmaster in Rutland, a job he held from 1946-75.
Then there is the story of life travels. Johnson has traveled from California to the East Coast three times, by the northern, southern and middle paths. She remembers when gas was six cents a gallon. She's lived in four states, she said, and remembers the berries in Michigan. Her mother once canned 100 quarts of berries. Nowadays, berries "aren't sweet anymore." She remembers making pies from berries they picked and gathering asparagus by the cemetery.
"Eating didn't cost us as much as it does now," she said.
Because she knows "money doesn't go very far now," there is the story of her generous but practical giving. Johnson said she used to give $2 bills to everybody. She estimates she's probably given away about 2,000 $2 bills. At her 100th birthday, she remembers about 125 people came and they all got a $2 bill. Roland said his mother has given a number of bills to work colleagues at Northwestern Bell. They still have them.
"We don't dare spend them," Roland reports his friends say. The bills with her initials, JMJ, on them are their good luck charms.
And there is the story of loss. Jennie and Clarence went to a John Denver concert in Omaha in 1989. She remembered somebody had taken their seats. They did get seated, but her husband got so excited he had a massive heart attack at the concert and died. Roland remembers getting that shocking phone call.
With all these life experiences, Johnson has some advice to share. For one thing, drive safely. As far as advice on living a long life, "I have no idea," she said. "I lived a clean life, never drank beer or anything."
It must have worked, as she is in quite good health. In fact, she was still driving and living on her own at age 100. After she was involved in the 2008 bus accident east of Madison, she went to Golden Living Center, where she is in generally good health.
She said she doesn't see or hear well, but at her age she's wise enough to know, "You've got to lose something."
But she hasn't lost her stories.
©Madison Daily Leader 2013
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