Friends and family of Columbia Johnson will always remember how much she gave to her country, God, and her fellow man.
“She was a very compassionate person,” said Richard Staples, a retired Englewood resident, educator and friend of Johnson.
Johnson died April 5 at age 94. She had lived in Englewood since 1985. She never married or had children. Friends and family came to remember her in a service Thursday at St. Raphael Catholic Church.
“She gave to 115 organizations,” Staples said. “She gave at least over $90,000 of her own money.”
Johnson kept busy until the very end of a long life that included being a devout Catholic, history teacher, World War II code breaker, philanthropist, photographer and genealogist.
“What’s remarkable is how steadfast she was in her beliefs from her religious background to her service in World War II,” said Luke Pickett, a great nephew who came to Englewood from Stratham, N.H. to attend service.
Johnson was a codebreaker in Washington D.C. and lived in sequestered apartments.
“When she told me about her role in World War II, she was still guarded even after 50 years,” Pickett said. “She took her oath very seriously. They weren’t allowed to talk to anyone out of fear of spies. They were to turn in anyone who interacted with them.”
Pickett recalled a story Johnson told him about a persistent guy who rode with her on the bus who didn’t know any better.
“He kept trying to strike a conversation with her,” he said. “She was doing all she could to avoid eye contact. Afterward, she had to turn the guy in. At a time of war, you never knew what anything was. It was a different time. They were the greatest generation.”
Pickett said the family discovered she had been an avid stamp collector dating back to the 1940s and she was an accomplished photographer.
“I can’t tell you how much she had with the boxes of multi-generational treasures,” he said. “My children were lucky enough to have known her. I hope her experience rubbed off on them.”
Johnson traced her lineage to Canada during the French settlement. When the British came and dispersed the French, some of her family migrated to Louisiana. Johnson spoke French fluently. Pickett said he’ll remember the summers he spent at her cottage, “Gem of the Ocean,” in Wells Beach, Maine. Staples remembered the road trips he took with Johnson.
“I would be given a state-by-state history lesson on our 1,600 mile trip from Wells Beach to Englewood,” Staples said. “She could give me history of every state. She especially knew about Acadian history from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick. She would also bring her cat, Calico, a Maine coon, with her on the trips. We would stop on Sundays to attend Mass.”
Staples met Johnson when he registered at the University of Maine in 1966.
They became close friends. When Richard and his wife, Lorraine Staples, visited Johnson they would always bring a bottle of her favorite drink, Canadian Club.
“She loved people and embraced her good life,” Staples said. “She was linked to her savior Jesus Christ. I spent 27 years knowing her and I’m going to miss her.”