At the end, when she decided it was time to forgo more cancer treatments, Janice Johnson stayed true to the upbeat, generous and inclusive values she had embraced all her life.
“She said, ‘I’m going to have so much fun planning my funeral,’ ” Johnson’s daughter, Connie Coleman, said. And she did.
Johnson, 82, died Sept. 11 after a life of activism in civil rights and social justice.
She was born in Windom, Minn., where her father worked his whole life in the local hardware store. Johnson’s mother died when she was 4, and her father did all he could to “piecemeal” an existence for his two children, Coleman said. Johnson and her brother grew up in the homes of two different aunts, and their father came to visit every day.
Nevertheless, her mom grew up to become “the happiest, most optimistic person you ever met,” said Coleman. “She could have easily gone the other direction.”
Johnson entered Macalester College, where she studied social work, and met her husband, James Johnson, at a church picnic in Windom while he was on leave from military service in the Korean War. They started out as Republicans, but when they felt the politics changing around them, they began attending Democratic fundraisers — in part because they were more fun, said Coleman.
Johnson worked as a social worker for Hennepin and Waseca counties, and for the University of Minnesota’s psychology department. But she was most widely known for her fierce social justice activism. “She was a force to be reckoned with,” said Coleman.
In the early 1970s, Johnson and her husband became deeply involved in the movement to desegregate Minneapolis Public Schools. “They went to a million meetings,” Coleman said. “People were pulling kids out of public schools and putting them in private schools.” In fourth grade, Coleman was among the first white children to board a bus for a newly desegregated school.
The Johnsons also joined a grass-roots effort to fight airport noise over their south Minneapolis neighborhood, which resulted in the first program to soundproof affected homes.
She also started a Meals On Wheels program through her church, a service that lasted for 20 years. And every week she would coordinate and help serve dinner to as many as 300 homeless people at the church.
During the Iraq war, Johnson was a regular at weekly protests on the Lake Street bridge, holding a peace sign in all kinds of weather.
When Johnson’s son-in-law, Chris Coleman, first ran for mayor of St. Paul in 2005, she and her husband moved there. They became key players in his successful campaign, volunteering full time to answer phones, send mailings and feed the staff.
At Macalester Plymouth United Church, Johnson became the unofficial greeter. She would find people sitting alone in the back, Connie Coleman said, and grill them in the warmest, friendliest way possible.
“There is a whole slew of people who felt like Jan liked them best,” Coleman said. “I feel like she liked me best. It’s a really, really great quality.”
Taking care of people, however, wasn’t enough: She wanted to save the bees and the monarch butterflies, too. She took over the yard at the Colemans’ St. Paul home years ago, in part because she wanted the mayor’s home to impress Republicans who were coming to town for their national convention. She took to natural gardening long before it became popular, planting milkweed for monarchs and collecting water in rain barrels.
On the day she found out she had only weeks to live, Johnson’s husband texted a photo to Connie Coleman: her mother dragging a 30-pound bag of mulch across the yard.
She was determined, Connie Coleman said, that the yard would be as lovely as it could be even after she was gone.
Johnson is survived by her husband, James, and children Jeffrey and Drew Johnson and Connie Coleman. Services have been held.