A Life: Janice S. Johnson, 1947-2014; 'The Tougher They Were, the Harder She Worked to Help Them'
Janice Johnson poses with family at a gathering in her backyard in Windsor. Back, from left to right, are Janice and Tom Johnson’s son, Mark Johnson; Johnson; daughter-in-law, Kat Johnson; and daughter, Rebecca Johnson. In front, left to right, are Tom Johnson; grandson, Ethan Johnson; and son, James Johnson. Beverly Kiniry photograph
Windsor — A consummate teacher, avid crafter and dedicated volunteer, Janice “Jan” Johnson was quick to share her gifts with others.
For Johnson’s colleagues, friends, and relatives, a wedding or the birth of a baby meant a handmade present from the longtime Windsor resident. And Johnson also knitted for a nonprofit that collects blankets for newborns, said Alissa Nelson, her colleague at State Street School in Windsor.
“She went out of her way to bless other people,” said Nelson, who also knew Johnson through church activities. “She is probably one of the most thoughtful people that I know.”
That kindness and generosity permeated every part of her life, family and friends say.
A Medford, Mass., native, Jan Sprague earned a bachelor’s degree from Gordon College, a Christian college in Wenham, Mass., and a master’s degree from Boston College. After graduating, she moved to Vermont to work with the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, traveling the state to help teachers who had blind students. She bought a house in Windsor, where she attended First Baptist Church. There, she met her future husband.
“We just got to talking, and one thing led to another and we got engaged,” said Tom Johnson, who retired in 2006 as business manager of Historic Homes of Runnemede. They were married on Feb. 15, 1975, and had three children, Rebecca, Mark, and James.
Johnson, who died in May at 67, was outgoing and loved to be with people, her husband said. Throughout her life, she kept in touch with family members, traveling to reunions in Waterville, Maine, and Burlington, and she was known for carrying on their culinary traditions. Cookbooks fill two bookcases in the Johnsons’ home, where Tom Johnson, who has cerebral palsy and other health problems, lives with Mark, his full-time caregiver.
Mark Johnson remembers fondly the birthday cakes and oatmeal and orange marmalade bread his mother made, and during a recent visit, Johnson’s cousin recalled another family favorite, raisin cake. Apparently, people used to eat the dessert with either hard sauce or lemon sauce, “but in our family we put both on,” Susan Chrisemer said, laughing. “It was all … confectionery sugar, butter and vanilla. What’s not to like about that?”
In addition to spending time with family and friends, the Johnsons also attended church together and volunteered with the Windsor Boy Scouts. When Tom’s health started deteriorating several years ago, his wife and Mark cared for him.
As much time as they spent together, the couple also maintained separate interests.
“We are both very independent,” Tom, a Windsor native, said, smiling. “That made for interesting dynamics.”
They each had their own space, both at home and in the world. Sometimes, Tom retired to his home office to do taxes for various clients, while Johnson gardened or worked on her many craft projects. Her creative endeavors included quilting and making doll clothes and catnip-filled cat toys, which she sold at crafts fairs, farmers markets and retail shops. She also made baby booties and Christmas ornaments, which she gave as gifts, and she often drove to White River Yarns to take part in a knitting group.
Karen Caple, who owns the White River Junction business, knew Johnson for 25 years.
“She was a very, very special person, always happy,” Caple said. “She was just dearly loved by all of her friends and an inspiration to women.”
She was also a talented knitter. Johnson’s friend and co-worker Katherine Gionet-Kloszewski previously served with Johnson as co-president of the support staff union. Gionet-Kloszewski recalls her working on various projects during their monthly meetings. But even with her needles flying, Johnson was paying “rapt attention,” she said. “She never had to watch what she was doing.”
Johnson was also known to knit during sermons at Christ Community Church in Plainfield, where she was a deaconess, piano player, and active in the women’s ministry. And, it seemed, ever present.
“Every Sunday school class, every Sunday service, she never missed,” said Caple, who also attends the church.
After her work with the association for the blind, Johnson continued her career in education, teaching for a few years at Springfield (Vt.) High School. Johnson had “always adored” working with special education students, and at Springfield High School, she taught the students practical skills, such as cooking and doing laundry, Tom Johnson said, “hopefully so that when they were older they could be more independent.”
When their children were born, she became a stay-at-home mom. Later, she joined State Street School, where she worked as a paraeducator for almost two decades.
“She didn’t like all the paperwork involved with being a teacher,” Tom Johnson said. “She’d rather work with the kids.”
Johnson will “be sorely missed,” said Gionet-Kloszewski, a longtime paraeducator at State Street School. Gionet-Kloszewski, who often ate lunch with Johnson, said she loved seeing her friend work with students.
“She was a very calm, very soothing woman, more or less unflappable,” she said. Yet gentle as she was, Johnson was also effective.
“She was firm, but it was in such a way that you wanted to do what she said,” Gionet-Kloszewski said. “Kids know when you care, and they know who cares about them.”
And she didn’t shy away from challenges.
Margaret Russo, a fellow paraeducator at the school, also worked with Johnson in the union, which has set up a scholarship fund in her name.
“We would attend the National Education Association meetings, field the questions and problems from the staff, and work to make sure everyone was taken care of according to the contract that so many have fought to secure,” Russo said in an email. “We negotiated contracts and sometimes hammered out mediations into the wee hours of the morning.”
Johnson was also unfazed by difficult students.
“The tougher they were, the harder she worked to help them,” Russo said. “She would not give up.”
Not all of Johnson’s teaching was done within the walls of a school. Both of her sons were homeschooled for a time — Mark when he was in middle school and James for the first year or two of high school.
One of the youngest kids in his class, he was falling behind during what he calls his “rebellious pre-teen years,” said James, who lives in Alaska. So, his parents decided to give him “that extra boost” at home.
“I looked at it as an opportunity for them to get more chores out of me,” he said, laughing. But in the end, being taught by his mother made him “buckle down,” bolstering his academic skills.
Johnson encouraged him to pursue his interests, both in and out of school, enrolling him in environmental conservation camp and creating special lessons to keep his attention.
At the time, he was “big into biology,” and wanted to work for fish and game, but he had started to hate math, James said. One of his assignments involved figuring out a population density, “which is math but camouflaged as something I was interested in.”
When he was an adolescent, his parents’ close attention to his preferences annoyed him. But in retrospect, he appreciates the sort of coursework his mother arranged for him, especially a study of roadside geology in New Hampshire and Vermont.
“It was much more hands-on than just a classroom setting,” James said. “Looking back, it’s like, ‘Wow, that was the greatest thing ever.’”
Johnson’s death came as a surprise to many. Despite some medical problems, Johnson had been fairly healthy , her husband said. But in March, she started having headaches, and in mid-May she was diagnosed with an aggressive type of thyroid cancer. She died on May 27. Family and friends said her death, like her life, was a testament to her faith.
“She wants people to know that God is real, and faith can sustain you through all circumstances in life,” Caple said.
Even facing death, Johnson was confident and at peace. “She never ever was fearful or worried,” said Caple, who saw her at home on May 26.
Gionet-Kloszewski also visited the Johnsons’ house that day. Unable to speak, Johnson showed her a list she had compiled over the previous week. It included her belongings and the names of friends and relatives they should be given to. An avid baker, Gionet-Kloszewski’s name was written next to the words “cookie cutters.”
Gionet-Kloszewski recalls being struck by how youthful and beautiful Johnson looked that day. Not being very religious herself, seeing her friend like that got her thinking.
“There was like a radiance from her,” she said. “So, maybe there is something wonderful up there .”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.