January 4, 1996
Whenever the first snowflakes appear tumbling in the air, I always think of Ethel L. Johnston. She was a lady with eclectic interests, and one of them was the welfare of the many birds nesting in this area during wintertime. If a snowfall seemed imminent, she would call us at The Journal office pleading for a short notice on the front page to remind everyone to put out bread crumbs or birdseed for our feathered friends. It was a ritual we expected and knew quite well. It was just one of this dear lady's many passions.
Her life story was filled with enough drama, wit, charm and pathos to provide the script for a wonderful TV miniseries or a sweeping panoramic movie biography, with no artificial embellishment needed. I would cast Meryl Streep in the leading role. Ethel L., as most people called her, was a charming first lady of the state of Oklahoma while her husband, Henry S. Johnston, was governor in the 1920s. She was a career woman ahead of her time, before that term was even coined and before most women found the courage to take up causes close to their hearts.
She spent most of her life in this little city on the prairie and many of us were fortunate enough to consider ourselves her friends. Her circle of acquaintances, however, was not limited to our community. She was pro-active in many organizations which reached the borders of this state and beyond and as a result she was well known to countless people living miles from Perry.
She loved the outdoors and passed this enthusiasm on to the many young people whose lives she touched. Nancy Coyle Hasenfratz of Kingfisher, who was reared in Perry on Holly street across from Ethel L.'s house, remembers the Saturdays when Mrs. Johnston would gather up the neighborhood children and take them "exploring" in the country. Nancy adds, "This was when Cherie Jean Jensen (Ethel L.'s granddaughter) lived with the Johnstons. The Evans kids, Hayden Mugler and I learned from her the different wild flowers and burrows of the animals. Ethel L. was an expert on birds, wild flowers, even mushrooms. I wouldn't be surprised if she could talk to the animals."
"Some summer nights," Nancy remembers, "Ethel L. laid blankets on the ground by her house. We all gathered and she taught us about the constellations and stars. One summer it was my goal to catch this beautiful oriole; it was quite a feat! We put the delicate creature in a bird cage outside and took loving care of it. Ethel L. came over and had a sweet visit with me - telling me that the bird, like me, needed to be free. So, together, we opened the cage and watched the bird spread its wings and fly."
Because of her great interest in the outdoors, Ethel L. started the Camp Fire Girls organization here. It was a movement she believed in and through it she shared an enjoyment of nature with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young women who, like Nancy, carried that pleasure into their adult lives.
There was virtually no limit to the number of humanitarian and genteel subjects which benefitted from her interest. During the Great Depression of the 1930s she ran a one-woman soup kitchen. She cooked each morning at her home, then took the food downtown to feed the hungry. She also baked fresh bread daily because that was the only kind of bread Henry S., a vegetarian, would eat. Ethel L. was the first chairman of the Noble county American Red Cross chapter. She worked with that organization through two World Wars, many disasters and numerous service projects. She recognized the need for a Perry museum early in this century and her persistence led to the establishment of the Cherokee Strip Museum now gracing West Fir Avenue. Part of the museum's collection comes from makeshift display cases Mrs. Johnston secured for a crowded corner of the Carnegie Library basement. That nook, formerly known as the Heritage Room, was our first museum.
She was a longtime member of Chapter BH, PEO, a past president of the Perry Progress Club and a serious artist who studied with the late Jacques Gallrein of Coyle. Today many of her lovely landscapes and still lifes adorn the walls of Perry homes. She was a physical fitness advocate and power walking was her favorite mode of exercise. Her erect, determined figure was familiar all over this city as she took her daily strolls. No one knows how many miles she logged.
Ethel L. and Henry S. had no children of their own but they adopted three daughters and a son. Those youngsters could not have had more loving parents. They provided the Johnstons with four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
She spent 25 years as grand secretary of the Oklahoma Order of the Eastern Star, a full-time job requiring meticulous maintenance of detailed records covering the activities of dozens of chapters and hundreds of Oklahoma OES members. Her work earned plaudits. She had no computers for assistance, but Mrs. Bessie Edwards was her faithful and efficient helper. Mrs. Johnston retired from the office in 1969, not long before her death.
While Henry S. was governor in the late 1920s, the governor's mansion was completed in a residential area just east of the capitol and Mrs. Johnston assisted with decorating the new home. Her husband's tenure as governor was a rough and tumble affair, but she stood staunchly by him in the face of many foolish and unfounded stories circulated by political enemies. After he was impeached and forced from office, the Johnstons were warmly greeted by a crowd of hundreds upon their return to Perry and the nature of that welcome from their friends here served to lift both of them.
Henry S. died in 1965 at the age of 97 and Ethel L. followed him some five years later when she was 82. She had been his life's companion since their marriage in 1909 when he was president pro tempore of the Oklahoma State Senate and she was an attractive 20-year-old brunette legislative reporter. Their deaths closed the books on an interesting chapter in the history of this city and the state of Oklahoma.
Along with the birds of the air, the hungry, the Camp Fire Girls and countless others, we all owe a great debt of gratitude to Ethel L. Johnston for the incredible life she lived and the example she left for us to emulate.