Helen Charlotte (Heath) Johnson, 94, passed away in her sleep, at Norlite Nursing Home in Marquette, MI, early in the morning of Tuesday, May 5, 2020. She had been basically well, but had endured advancing dementia for years. Due to the long quarantine, a family member could not be with Helen in her final hours, but she was lovingly attended by one of Norlite’s caring staff nurses.
Helen was born to Bennett and Sylvia (Grenell) Heath in Cassopolis, MI, May 17, 1925. Her father, Bennett, graduated from Michigan Agricultural College (later, Michigan State University) in East Lansing, then served as an agricultural development agent for the Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad before starting a John Deere tractor dealership, then hardware and greenhouse business in Skandia. Heath’s Hardware remained a staple for supplies of all kinds, in the community for many years until it burned down in 1987. It was rebuilt and run by Helen’s brother David and his son Brian.
At age six, Helen moved with her family to Marquette, MI. For a short time, when Helen was 12, they lived in a lumber baron’s mansion in Houghton while Bennett worked to develop strawberries and expanding potato crops in the Keweenaw to be shipped by rail. In 1939, they bought a farm in Skandia where Ben could grow shippable crops and experiment with those best suited to the UP environment. (Coincidentally, the farm, barn, and home had been owned and built by Ken’s Great Uncle, Ole and Grandfather, AP Johnson.)
Helen met her future husband, Lowell Kenneth (Ken) Johnson on the Skandia school bus to Graveraet High School in Marquette. Their first date, in 1941, was at Doncker’s in Marquette, a popular gathering place for young people to enjoy sodas, candies and sandwiches.
On March 3, 1945, Helen and Ken were married in New Rochelle, NY while Ken was on shore leave from the Navy, while serving on the U.S.S. West Point. Six months later, after Ken was discharged from the Navy, the couple had their wedding reception in Skandia at the home of Helen’s parents.
For a short time prior to their marriage, Helen attended Beloit College in WI, and later served as a telephone operator for Michigan Bell in Plymouth, MI.
After living in a couple small rental homes around Skandia with baby Judy, they moved to a lot next to the County Garage, and across the road from Ken’s sister, Flo and her family, the Holman’s. A small house had been moved to the property. From 1948 to 1961, the family lived in the expanding home as Ken added to both ends of the house to accommodate their growing family; Judy, Jerry, Keith, and Dana. For years, Ken was a partner in Heath’s Hardware and ran the saw shop where he sold and repaired McCulloch chainsaws.
While living in Skandia, Helen served as a 4-H leader, a member of the PTA, a Sunday School teacher, and pianist at the Methodist Church, while her mother, Sylvia, was a teacher, Sunday School superintendent, and played the church organ. The Johnson home became a hub of activity for neighbor kids with a baseball field in back, plenty of crafts, books, and board games to enjoy during inclement weather.
In 1962, Ken was invited to work with Omark Industries that required the family to move to Lansing. While there, Helen served as a Cub Scout den mother and created a yard that was the envy of the neighborhood. Ken soon was wooed to Stihl America of Virginia Beach, VA, as Vice President of Sales, a chainsaw safety trainer, then to the legal department in investigations. He retired after 20 years with Stihl, yet still repairing chainsaws in his Trenary garage.
In 1966, with daughter Judy married, and son Jerry working in Lansing, Ken and Helen purchased a house on Rock Lake near Vestaburg and moved there with their two younger sons, Keith and Dana. Helen went right to work, building a long stone garden wall, and another beautifully landscaped yard full of flowers. They enjoyed life at the lake until Ken’s retirement in 1991 when the couple moved back to the Upper Peninsula; first to Winters Corners, a farmstead east of Trenary, then to a retirement village in Gladstone.
Helen had been living in a nursing home in Escanaba for a couple years when Ken’s macular degeneration blindness prevented him from being able to properly care for her in their Gladstone home. That changed in 2014, when son, Dana, returned home from Oregon where he had lived for nearly three decades. After trial runs of home visits, they decided to move Helen out of the nursing home and back into their Gladstone home in the fall of that year. Helen lived with Ken and son, Dana, until Ken’s passing, December 13, 2015.
In January 2016, Helen and Dana moved to Gowen, MI, to the home of Ruth Sanderson, Dana’s high school sweetheart with whom he had reunited the previous summer. Ruth and Dana were married May 2016, and Helen lived with them until June 2017 when it became necessary for Helen to again be placed in a nursing home. Helen’s daughter, Judy, moved her to Brookridge Heights, then to Norlite Nursing Home in Marquette where she resided for the remainder of her life.
Helen was an avid reader, and the house was always rich with books. She was always very creative; a skilled gardener, and a brilliant seamstress winning many awards at the U.P. State Fair and the Marquette County Fair. She sewed for her home, family and friends. She made exquisite beaded jewelry, and did all kinds of fine paper crafts. She was a gifted paper doll costume artist noted in the field for her unique fashion designs and creations. A large dollhouse patterned after Helen’s childhood Houghton home became the family’s many-year project, delight and pride. When their Gladstone home was sold, the dollhouse moved to the Peter White Public Library where it was enjoyed by thousands of people until a library expansion project required it be moved. Granddaughter, Anna, is now the happy caretaker of the dollhouse and all its beautiful furnishings.
She is survived by one sister-in-law, Mary (Loucks) Heath; her children, Judy M Johnson (Glenn DeVlaminck) of Skandia, MI, Jerry Johnson (Laurie Jo) of Grandville, MI, Keith Johnson (Peter Bane) of Montague, MI, and Dana Johnson (Ruth Sanderson) of Gowen, MI. Helen is also survived by her grandchildren, Judy’s daughter, Jenny (Chris) Taliadoros and son, Kenny Taylor (Krystal Hall); Jerry’s son, Jeremy, and daughters, Bailey and Kelsey; and Dana’s daughter, Anna (Chris) Bunes. She is survived by her great-grandchildren, Kenny and Krystal’s son, Zak, and daughter, Willow Rose; Jeremy’s son, Calvin; and Anna and Chris’ son, Benjamin. In addition, Helen is survived by dozens of nephews and nieces, their children, and their children’s children.
Helen was preceded in death by her husband, Ken Johnson; her brothers, Alfred (Betty) Heath, David (Ann) Heath, Robert (Mary) Heath, and John (Barb) Heath.
A memorial service celebrating the life of Helen will take place as soon as restrictions are lifted in Skandia, MI.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Helen C. Johnson, please visit our floral store.