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December 9, 2022

12/19/2013 12:43:00 PM
104-year-old eager to see what's next

Friday the 13th was a good day last week for Judith Johnson, who celebrated her 104th birthday December 13. As one of 15 Swenson children, 13 of whom lived beyond infancy, Judith was of school age before the First World War hit. There’s a beautiful framed photo in sepia tone on the wall next to her chair, in which Gust and Hannah Swenson stand with their children like a regiment, fearless and assured.

To even be speaking in 2013 with somebody who is in that photo is mind-boggling. And even more amazing is how personable and astute Judith remains. Maybe it’s because she has surrounded herself with friends a couple decades younger, like Marilee (see photo.) Judith says almost everybody she knew as a youngster in her North Branch neighborhood came down ill in the great flu epidemic of 1918, except for herself. It fell upon her to walk to the barn on the city outskirts that her family leased, in order to have dairy cows and other food producing farm creatures. At 9-years-of-age, she collected the milk the family consumed and also toted small containers that townspeople would buy. Judith was 14 when she left North Branch (that would have been approximately the Prohibition Era) taking employment with a family in White Bear Lake, who needed help with their four children.

When her mother died Judith was 27 and she returned to the family home to see after her father. It was expected, “I didn’t even think about it,” she explained. Judith eventually married Oscar Johnson and her only child, a daughter, arrived in 1938. Her daughter is still her lifeline, she says she wouldn’t know what she would have done without her in her life. Judith and Oscar went to Sweden for their 25th anniversary. He worked for the airport and they flew cheap. They lived in Minneapolis for 50 years and their home was the place that neighbor kids would gravitate to. Judith was the go-to babysitter for many, she said.

During this story interview Judith took a phone call from one of those “kids” wishing her happy birthday. “Oh I still keep in touch with some of them,” she apologizes for the interruption. Judith watches television news and voted in the last election and keeps up on current events. Matter-of-factly she says, “I was really very healthy until I hit 103.” She had glaucoma surgery in one eye and a fall recently hospitalized her.

Released to physical therapy at Parmly in Chisago City; when it came time to relocate, she opted to stay put. She’d only been in her room since Dec. 10 when we spoke, and was busy reconnecting with acquaintances who also reside there. “When I go to meals I have someone I can talk to,” she explained. And now there’s always someone around to play Aggravation with. It’s Judith’s favorite-- a sort of Parchesi-style board game.

A custom Aggravation board that her husband made of wood is always kept at arm’s reach. She leans forward and declares that those factory games made of cardboard didn’t withstand the wear and tear. Judith is a planner and she and Oscar as a couple were of the same mind when it came to being frugal, avoiding debt and being organized. Judith has never driven an automobile. When she and Oscar purchased their burial plot in Minneapolis they made sure the cemetery was on a bus line. He was 87 when he died. Yet you sense no pre-occupation with mortality in spending time with Judith, in fact her outlook is truly upbeat. She thoroughly enjoyed a first-ever Jacuzzi bath the morning before we stopped by and joked, “I just wonder what’s going to happen next.”

The U.S. Census in a special report released in 2012 counted 1,211 people living in Minnesota who are 100 years of age or older.

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