August 27, 2007

Good cooking is not the only secret to having a successful marriage

Even though those lemon pies don’t hurt anything

By Jen Bakken
Staff Writer

A birthday, an anniversary, a celebration of life and love recently took place for a long-time Delano resident, all in one day.

Saturday, Aug. 18 marked, Frances (Marschall) Johnson’s 93rd birthday and, also, the day Jean Johnson became her husband.

Now, after 64 years of marriage, romance is still in the air for this couple, which was proven at the Delano Senior Center Monday when Jean surprised Frances by singing a love song he wrote especially for her:

“I love you for sentimental reasons
“For those wonderful lemon pies
“And those die for sugar cookies
“And those Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes and gravy which Carroll
Lundeen liked so much
“And all those great kitchen productions.
“You were the cream in my coffee
“And you were the salt in my stew
“All the wonderful dancing in the big ballroom in Hamel
“I love you, yes I do
“So be sure it’s true when I say I love you
“For it’s a sin to tell a lie.”

Standing proudly in front of the senior center lunch crowd, he ended the song with,

“Love you baby.”

Witnessing the sparkle in his eyes and the bright smile on her face enabled others to escape the gloomy and rainy weather outdoors, if only for a few moments.

Moments, something this couple feels lucky to have shared many of over the years, and it all began with one moment on an elevator in 1942 during World War II.

While working for Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA) in 1942, Jean was part of a group selected by the Army Air Transport Command (ATC) to go to Washington, D.C. and operate five Boeing Strato Liners (high altitude passenger planes) for the Army Air Force. They flew planes from Washington to Cairo via South America and Africa. Later, those planes were replaced with Douglas C-54s, and they flew to Prestwick, Scotland via Gander, Newfoundland, and Iceland, until the war ended.

During this same time, Frances was working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a special agent stenographer, also in Washington D.C.

“Sometimes I’m a little reluctant to even say I worked for the FBI, but now I guess it doesn’t make any difference,” Frances said.

She remembers when a German submarine came into shore and got stuck in the sand off of North Carolina.

“I don’t know if I should tell this, but they were captured, imprisoned, and tried . . . some of them were executed.”

The Japanese camps in California are also something she remembers, and she took dictation for one of the agents in charge.

“Those are just a couple things I remember,” she recalled. “It was a very interesting place to work.”

Incredibly, Jean, from Kansas City, Mo., and Frances, from Shakopee, ended up living in the same apartment building in Washington D.C. during World War II.

Jean lived on the ninth floor, Frances the 11th and they first met briefly in the tall building’s elevator. Their first date was at an ice skating party at an ice palace.

“That was the beginning of our romance,” Jean said.

After dating for about a year, they were married in a small ceremony in the sacristy of the St. Matthew’s Cathedral, a room where the sacred vessels, vestments, and other items were kept, as Jean was not a Roman Catholic, and could not be married in the church proper at the time.

Because of the war, travel was difficult and only two of Frances’s sisters were able to attend. Having three days for a honeymoon in New York, they boarded a train crowded with servicemen and other passengers and they had to stand most of the way. There were suitcases and baggage clogging the aisles and Frances remembers standing perfectly still so as not to snag her pantyhose.

“Back then, they were so hard to come by, and my lovely nylon hose got a big snag. I was unhappy about that,” she recalled.

During the next five years, they stayed in Washington D.C. Frances continued working for the FBI and Jean for ATC. After the war ended, Jean returned to work for TWA, and in 1946, the company sent him to Africa, the Middle East, India and beyond to check out facilities in that part of the world. He had many fascinating experiences during this time, many of which happened in India, including having to drink warm canned beer because the water was bad, and it was the only other thing to drink. He said he avoids beer to this day.

He also remembers riding trains with monkeys climbing all over inside while some people rode outside on the roof, and participating in tiger hunts while riding on elephants.

He was gone from home approximately 12 months, and when he returned, many things had changed. New people had taken over the company, and previous executives were gone. He also discovered he had been demoted.

He was transferred to Wilmington, Del., and later took a position with Nash Motors. The Johnsons moved to North Carolina, and their children, Pam and Chip, were born there. After a few years, Frances became homesick for Shakopee.

“I came from a family of nine and I wanted my children to know their cousins,” she said.

They moved to Shakopee, and Jean took a position with the Granite Works of Delano as a sales representative selling monuments, and after two years, became the assistant sales manager. Along with this position came other titles such as; director of public relations and president of cemetery management, which is a corporation formed by Don Gilmer, the owner of the Granite Works, and his brother in-law, Jack Holton.

The family moved to Delano, as the drive from Shakopee was too far, and built a home on East Oak Avenue.

The home had a traffic pattern they found in Better Homes & Gardens. The couple says this has been a very comfortable home for them, having lived there now for 48 years.

They are sometimes asked why, at their age, they still maintain their home there.

“We can still handle it, we’re both together, we like it and so we are going to stay as long as we can,” Frances said, admitting she knows how fortunate they are.

After many years of traveling across 18 states, Jean left Granite Works in 1961 to open Decra Products with local attorney Bob Bakke.

They manufactured artificial brick, tile, and figurines – first in Minneapolis, then in a factory at 124 North River Street in Delano.

Eventually, Jean became the sole owner of the company, and began making artificial fireplaces which were sold all over the country in Montgomery Wards and other stores.

In 1962, Frances, who had gone to college to become a teacher, was asked by St. Peter’s Catholic School to substitute for a month or two. There were nine nuns teaching at the school, and she was the only lay teacher. Teaching third grade for the remainder of the year, she was then asked to return, and did so for the next 15 years. Eventually, the school turned to an all-lay faculty.

Three years later, in 1965, was the terrible flood in Delano, and in 1969, the weather and rainfall was predicted to create flooding again.

The Army Corps of Engineers was contacted by then Delano Mayor, Bud Rieder to finance and build dikes along the Crow River. At this time, Jean was still operating Decra Products, and had rented five buildings along River Street for expansion.

He was approached about being the dike coordinator for the City of Delano, and accepted the task, which he says was finished just in time.

“The snow melted, the rains came, and the dikes held,” he recalled. “It seemed like I was about five years older when it was finished.”

Once Jean sold Decra Products, he went into the warehouse business for a time, and also held local city positions such as city clerk, deputy registrar, city assessor, school board member, and Justice of the Peace.

He was a member of the Delano Chamber of Commerce and the Delano Lions Club. He was also appointed to the power commission, as well as named president of the Central Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association and Minnesota Municipal Power Agency. And as if those titles weren’t enough, he was also the Wright County chairman for the Republican Party during 1973-75.

Frances has been involved with the General Federated Women’s Club of Delano and the Friends of the Library for many years.

Together, they are committed to the Delano-Franklin Historical Society, and are active in helping to preserve Delano’s History. Jean has conducted countless interviews with long-time Delano residents, community leaders, and business owners, which he has videotaped to help preserve Delano’s history.

With multiple experiences and business endeavors under his belt, Jean and his son, Chip, opened a Radio Shack store in 1982 at 201 North River Street in Delano, which they sold two years later.

Hobbies and activities have kept this couple busy and happy. They have enjoyed traveling, spending time with family, including their children and grandchildren, and love to dance.

“Of course we still dance together to Lawrence Welk, out in the kitchen, on the linoleum, right honey?” he asked his bride of 64 years.

To which she looked right into his eyes and said, “Oh yeah, that’s the music from when we were young. We like the rhythm.”

Watching the interaction between Jean and Frances is something to be envied by other married couples or anyone hoping to find that special someone to spend the rest of their life with.

When asked about their relationship, Jean is quick to comment on his wife’s delicious cooking.

“We’ve got one of the best kitchens in town,” he beamed.

Gently touching her husband’s hand, from across their dinning room table, Frances smiles, with her eyes, while speaking of Jean’s generosity and thoughtfulness, adding, “I’ve never found anybody that could measure up to him.”

As the saying goes, the way to this man’s heart is through his stomach, but as he says in his song, he loves her for sentimental reasons, too, and a story he tells proves just that.

In high school, Jean wanted to attend the prom but didn’t know how to dance, so he took lessons and fell right into it. Eventually he became a dance instructor at the Pla-Mor Ballroom, because he knew the person in charge of hiring. The instructors were able to attend all dances free and since he also worked for TWA, he was able to travel and dance.

“I danced from Catalina Island all the way to New York and in-between, I could name 100 or more places. It was wonderful because I met lots and lots of girls,” he recalled.

As you are about to wonder how his story about dancing and lots of other girls can possibly be sentimental, or relate to his relationship with Frances, he finishes his tale with, “But the cream of the crop, I finally met when I was 28 years old, and I said ‘I can’t let her get away.’”

Then, her delicious cooking almost always on his mind, he adds with a grin, “And after that first chicken dinner, I knew that was it!”

Jean admits he’s spoiled, and says they’ve had a wonderful life and have been lucky to live during the past 93 years. He remarks about how things aren’t like they use to be and then, almost in unison, both Jean and Frances say, “Times change, nothing stays the same.”

This may be true with most things in life, but one thing has remained the same for Jean and Frances Johnson – the love they feel towards each other . . . and that wonderful cooking.

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