Fern Johnston sits surrounded by her daughter, two granddaughters and canine companion on a warm August afternoon in Mesa, vividly recalling many events during her soon-to-be 100 years.
Johnston, born on September 19, 1918, in a small Iowa town, is the youngest of three children. Her mother, she recollected, was very loving and caring, while her father wasn’t a “choice” person, spending time as a “woman chaser.”
During her childhood years, she spent time helping her mother wash dishes, round dancing and assisting her aunt, a hotel owner, during summer vacations. As a girl, Johnston seemingly lived a simple life, sharing small memories of learning how to drive and the inception of air conditioning.
Then, in 1940, Johnston fell in love and married, marking the beginning of an important chapter in her life.
“I think what I’m most grateful for in my life is I married a real good man. He was good to me and that was special because I hadn’t been raised like that,” she said.
Her late husband, Melvin B. Johnston – “Burdette,” as he was nicknamed – was the source of a lifetime of happiness.
“We married on December 29, 1940, and just a few days later on January 13th, he left for Brownwood, Texas, to go to the Army,” she said.
They spent most of their time apart as newlyweds. Being in the Army made it difficult to communicate with each other.
While serving in several military bases in the United States and in eastern Germany, Johnston estimates during her husband’s five-year service, he was granted, at most, furlough for two months.
This separation resulted in writing to one another on small note cards.
“I wrote my husband every day, and he wrote to me every time he had a chance,” she said. “That was a time when there were no telephone calls, no furloughs, no anything.”
Years later, Burdette was successfully discharged from the Army, having fought in more than five major battles in World War II.
“When he came back, that was the happiest day of my life,” she excitedly shared.
After Burdette’s time in the Army, the couple spent time building a life together, which included living on a farm for 10 years, having two daughters and moving to Chicago. There, Johnston’s lifelong career stumbled onto her lap.
“One afternoon I didn’t know what to do with myself after my kids started school because I had always worked and been so busy. So, I took a walk and went by Hines VA Hospital, they had a big sign out that said help wanted,” she said.
She inquired and learned she needed to take a civil service exam to qualify for the job.
“It just so happens they were giving the exam the very next day,” she said. “Let me tell you, I passed it with the skin of my teeth. And I know the reason why is because I wasn’t nervous. I was just doing it for something to do to pass the time.”
Lo and behold, Johnston was the only test taker to pass the exam. She started work soon after and eventually won more than 21 awards throughout her career working with prosthetics. She later retired after 22 years of service.
After this, Johnston and Burdette moved to the Valley in 1981, where the rest of their children later followed. Together, the couple spent many years here until Burdette died in 2005.
Johnston’s family has grown to include three grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren, all of whom take turns caring for Johnston.
“She’s the boss,” said Pam Emmer, her daughter, laughing. “She has her routine.”
In her free time, Johnston enjoys playing bridge with her friends, spending time with her family dog, baking and sewing.
Johnston recollects a life long-lived, with her true love and children by her side. That, she says, “is the greatest blessing I’ve ever received.”