Sylvia Johnson, whose woolen nurse’s hat served as one of many poignant personal windows into American involvement in World War II at a 2009 Minnesota History Center exhibit, died Tuesday at Mount Olivet Home in Minneapolis. She was 89 and had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Johnson’s experiences as a student nurse caring for gravely wounded American soldiers shaped her life and exemplified the spirit of service that characterized the “Greatest Generation,” her family said.
The second of nine siblings, Johnson was born into a farm family in Lac qui Parle County and graduated from high school in Madison, Minn., said her daughter Ramona Johnson of St. Louis Park. An early experience of caring for a dying family member inspired her interest in nursing, and she headed to nursing school in Grand Forks, N.D.
World War II soon overshadowed every aspect of American life. Against her father’s advice, the young nursing student jumped on a train bound for a military hospital in Brigham City, Utah, to care for wounded soldiers. In a 2009 Star Tribune story, Johnson said she felt compelled to go after hearing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt plead for nursing students to join the Cadet Nurse Corps.
She was not prepared for the overwhelming carnage of body and spirit she saw in the hospital, she told the Star Tribune. “It certainly was a kind of awakening,” she said. “It gave me a great career and certainly contributed a great deal to who I am today.”
In 1945, she finished nursing school, and in 1947, she married Marvin Johnson. They settled in Granite Falls, Minn., and had four daughters (a son died in infancy). She worked full time at the Montevideo hospital, where she especially enjoyed surgical nursing, her daughter said.
“Mom’s class motto in nurses’ training was ‘Service Above Self,’ ” her daughter said. “I think she took that to heart in every aspect of her life, and as a result was the favorite of many co-workers, patients and their families.”
Johnson retired in 1985, and she and Marvin moved to St. Cloud. He died in 1998.
A few years later, as her daughters were helping her pack to move to the metro area, Johnson found the white nurse’s cap, wrapped in wax paper, Ramona said. “We had heard so little as children about her wartime nursing experience, but the story unfolded from there,” her daughter said.
The cap, which was inscribed with more than 100 signatures of soldiers and others, was displayed at the History Center’s exhibit, “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation: The Depression, the War, the Boom.” The center honored her and other contributors with a ceremony, including a World War II aircraft flyover.
In addition to daughter Ramona, Johnson is survived by three other daughters, Patricia Hanson of Hoffman, Minn.; Constance Anderson of St. Cloud and Cynthia Johnson of Minneapolis; four brothers, Lawrence of Edina, Severt of Knoxville, Tenn., Lyle of Camas, Wash., and David of Rochester Hills, Mich.; two sisters, Alice Hanson and Ruth Thompson, both of St. Louis Park, and three grandsons. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Wooddale Lutheran Church, 4003 Wooddale Av. S., St. Louis Park, with visitation beginning one hour before services.
Staff writer Herón Márquez Estrada contributed to this report. Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290