In a testament to the power of love, strength of will, and the importance of eating vegetables, Fern Johnson lived to the age of 98. The Nampa resident faced down death multiple times over the course of life, surviving breast cancer, a heart attack, an autoimmune disease, and myasthenia gravis that left her bedridden for most of her middle-aged years. She passed away peacefully to be with the Lord, surrounded by family on May 24, 2019. A Celebration of Life will be held June 8th 11:00 A.M. at the First Christian Church in Nampa.
Nona Fern Johnson was born on December 27, 1920 to Roy and Gladys Coffman of Notus. Though an only child, Fern was rarely lonely. She played jump rope and hopscotch with the other “country kids.” On weekend nights they bought soda and then made a game of stacking matchsticks on the bottles. Nine decades later, Fern still chuckled at how much fun they could have for “just a nickel.”
Known for her dramatic flair, Fern spent her high school years in drama and debate. In the midst of the Depression, she often performed humorous readings for the farmers and made them laugh, which made her happy. She graduated from Nampa High School in 1939 and then earned a teaching certificate from the College of Idaho.
Fern met the love of her life, Master-Sergeant Cal Johnson, a former third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, at a dance. She loved how much they laughed together and they got married in her parents’ front yard the next year. Cal was deployed to the Pacific right after and the love birds wrote each other a letter every single day they were apart.
While Cal was deployed Fern worked at a factory in Spokane. She earned the scorn of her supervisor when she ignored the norms of segregation, helping the women of color with the “messiest work” that the supervisor reserved just for them. Fern cared deeply about people and had an innate sense of justice.
When Cal came back from the war, the couple had two children, Gerri and Roy. Fern became ill when the kids were little. Unable to continue her comedic performances herself, she forcibly enlisted her children. But the dynamic duo wasn’t allowed to simply read the material, they had to memorize it. Fern ferried the pair around to clubs, until Little League and Girls Scouts saved Roy and Gerri from a life of celebrity.
Cal passed away unexpectedly in 1969. Fern battled illness for much of their marriage, and after his funeral, she resolved to get well. She read medical books and revamped her diet. She hated taking medicine, instead advocating for the healing power of fruits and veggies.
With her health improved, Fern got a job with the State of Idaho as an employment counselor. She loved her work and making a difference in people’s lives. Even so, Fern may have loved baseball just a little bit more. She was a long-time regular at the Junior College World Series. She was also a fixture at her grandsons’ baseball games, Little League through college, and known and adored by entire teams.
Fern Johnson epitomized unconditional love, integrity, and a solid understanding of what mattered in life. She lived in the same modest house in Nampa for 70 years, and her prized possessions were handmade ornaments from her grandkids, family photos and a stuffed coyote that reminded her of the College of Idaho mascot. She definitely had opinions, especially given that she was the “oldest Democrat in Idaho.” But she listened first and gave the benefit of the doubt to most people.
Growing up, Fern’s friends used to joke that she was “deter-minded,” their funny way of saying determined. And she was determined—to live her life to the fullest and to spread love and joy no matter the circumstances. We’re grateful she’s back with her soulmate now. They were too long separated, and they’re undoubtedly making each other laugh again.
Fern is survived by her daughter, Gerri Brenneck (Bill); son, Roy Johnson (Starr); 4 grandchildren Neal (Heather), Wendy Foster, Justin (Kelly) and Eric (Connie) Johnson; 9 great grandchildren, one great-great grandchild and the wonderful congregation of First Christian Church of Nampa. “My fondest wish when I was two, was just to be as big as you. Now, twenty years have passed away, and still as earnestly I pray.”
We’d like to extend a special thanks to Streamside Assisted Living and Harrison Hope Hospice for their wonderful service, care, and love.
If you’d like to celebrate Fern, you can listen a little more, love a little harder, and stand up for what you believe. Don’t take yourself too seriously and pause to enjoy the simple things like a summer tomato and a kid’s baseball game. Also consider making a donation in her honor to the Idaho Youth Ranch.