Marian Johnson, beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother, passed away on April 7, 2017, following complications from a hip fracture.
Born in 1924, Marian McMahon was one of 8 children born to 1st generation immigrant parents in Philadelphia, Pa.
Marian’s father, James, was drafted and served in the U.S. Army during World War I, but through bureaucratic luck-of-the-draw, was never sent overseas. In Philadelphia, Marian endeared herself to an extended family of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who adored her for her clever and studious ways.
In the years of the depression, Marian’s family relocated to Los Angeles hoping to find employment for Marian’s father. They settled in the city of Bell, an east Los Angeles suburb, and her father worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In recent years, Marian was pleased to learn that while working for the WPA, her father had briefly assisted in the construction of the Griffith Observatory, famous for its’ Zeiss 12-inch refracting astronomical telescope, the first such device open to free viewing in the United States. She recalled that her father told her he helped dig a big hole in the ground at Griffith.
Marian’s father eventually obtained employment in Los Angeles at the Biltmore Hotel as a sous-chef. For all of her life, Marian remembered watching her father stir pots of soup that were bigger than she was.
In the 1930s, Marian’s mother Elsie and her Uncle Hugh managed a boarding house in Los Angeles. Her uncle was fascinated with birds, and constructed an indoor aviary on one floor of the house. Marian’s first “job” that she could recall was to pull loose threads from scrap fabric to leave in piles for the nest-building birds.
Marian worked to find other ways to support her struggling family. She started cutting up old aprons and clothing discarded by boarding house residents and taught herself to sew by making play outfits for her siblings on a sewing machine her mother bought on an installment plan. Although she longed to make more substantial garments, she had no money for cloth. Once, she salvaged a pile of pink pillowcases, and made a pattern to sew underwear for her father. The teasing her father received from his fellow-chefs for his “fancy pants” as he stood in the hotel kitchen dressing room to change into his kitchen whites became a family joke that made her laugh every time she told it. In a subsequent chapter of her story, Marian taught all of her daughters to sew.
Marian loved school, except for mathematics. She was always better at math than she thought, but throughout her life, she talked of her struggle to memorize multiplication tables. She excelled at English grammar, Latin, other languages and literature, and was proud that she always brought home high report card marks. Marian’s sister, Betty, was known for a talent for dancing. Not to be outdone, Marian loved to sing and is remembered for her beautiful voice. Her participation in her high school choral group led to additional vocal music study as a young adult.
Marian graduated from Bell High School in 1942. Her beloved father unexpectedly died that year. After briefly re-locating to Pennsylvania and Oregon, she returned to Los Angeles where her life-long passion for reading led her to a job with the City of Los Angeles Public Library. She commenced college-level studies and kept on singing.
Later in her life, she joyfully shared her love for reading with her children and always made time to read a storybook or two to her grandchildren. She was proud that her daughters and grandchildren all loved to read.
At the conclusion of World War II, Marian joined millions of her contemporaries as she sought employment with the Federal government under expanded mandates created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The building of the first Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 had precipitated the California water wars and their pursuant land grabs, and Marian stepped into this part of California history just as it began to regain a post-war momentum. She was hired by the U.S. Department of Interior, (DOI) Bureau of Land Management (BLM) General Land Office, to pull tracts and plats for applicants submitting purchase right applications for Los Angeles land. In her later years she described this job as the busiest jobs she ever had. She laughed in remembering “crazy characters with two-bit financing schemes” who came through the doors of the land office.
Marian’s employment with the Department of Interior (DOI) set the stage for the rest of her life, as she met and married Virginian, William Johnson. Mr. Johnson was a World War II veteran who had earned an accounting degree through the GI Bill and had been hired by the DOI as an auditor of its burgeoning state offices. Marian liked to relate that her husband remembered he was inducted into the army on November 24, 1942, the month and day a match for her date of birth, November 24, 1924. Her husband teased her that the “regimentational” significance of both dates was so similar that it helped him remember both.
Marian and her husband raised three daughters as they moved from Virginia to Colorado to Oregon and back to Virginia again. Marian rejoined the Department of Interior in 1960 to help put her three children through college. She served as a secretary and administrative assistant to senior DOI executives. She loved her work. She believed that responding to “a Congressional” was a very serious matter: that all the details had to be right. Her life-long love of the particulars of the English language empowered her to do exceptional work and she was widely esteemed by her coworkers.
As her children grew Marian proved to be a creative mother and grandmother. She made charming outfits for her young daughters. She hand-stitched seasonal costumes for a family of bench-sitting stuffed bears for her granddaughters. She was willing to read to the children in her life for hours, but she could switch gears and play toy cars with her grandsons for just as long. She proudly earned the nickname “bath lady” for her skill in scooping up the grandbabies for a quick “bath” in the kitchen sink.
She was always known for her generosity and kindness. She could not eat without sharing the food on her plate, and she stuffed five dollar bills in in the hands of her children and later, the grandchildren (“a little gas money!”). She always took her famous peanut butter and butterscotch cookies to the dentist and his staff. Even as her world got smaller as she aged, she came up with ways to be useful. She helped her neighbors when she could and she loved her family with great energy.
Marian is survived by her daughters, Zoeann Piasecki, Patricia Johnson, and Cecelia Boggs, her son-in-law Steven Bernstein, grandchildren Steven Mastric, Jeffrey Mastric, Kelly Boggs and Kathleen Boggs, sister Patricia Parker and brother John McMahon.
Mrs. Johnson will be interred with her late husband, William E. Johnson at the Arlington National Cemetery in a private ceremony. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Los Angeles County Public Library at http://lfla.org/support-us/