Obituary of Marie Johnson
“The flower lady,” Marie Johnson, decked her town in gladness. Over half a century as owner of Foothill Flowers she donated countless flowers to decorate parties and events for non-profits and local organizations.
Marie drifted into sleep and died peacefully in her North Auburn Street home on Friday night, August 10th. She was 87. Her customers, neighbors and friends are invited to a celebration of her life at Foothill Flowers, at Main and Auburn streets, on September 15, at 3 pm.
All four of Marie’s grandparents had emigrated from Sweden. The second of seven children of Emil and Olga Larson, Marie was born in 1930 in Michigan City, Indiana, where she was raised and graduated from Elston High. She worked in floral shops as a teen and young woman. In 1956 she headed west, following a friend to Sacramento and bringing her teenager brother, Carl. The friend had written: “The weather is gorgeous and there are plenty of jobs.”
In the state capital, Marie excelled. Competing shops vied to employ such an inspired designer. There she met and married Adelbert Arthur Johnson and they had three children, Beth, Mark and Todd. The couple divorced in 1965. In an era when single moms were rare, she moved to Grass Valley, loving the town and thinking it would be a safe place to raise children. Her oldest child was 7.
In 1966 Marie began her own floral shop by renting the Gold Rush-era building at Main and Auburn streets for $200 a month. “It was a lot in those days,” she remembered. She drove her Volkswagen bus to the shop each day from a modest house in Cedar Ridge, worked on a picnic table and had only a small refrigerator for her flowers. From a makeshift start, she developed a leading downtown business. She eventually bought the building.
Over her life, Marie faced hardship and tragedy. Her daughter Beth, a Nevada Union junior, died in a car accident in 1976. Marie responded by becoming the “official mother” of the class of ’77. She stayed in touch with Beth’s classmates and many of them visited “Momma Johnson” in her shop.
Marie provided the flowers for class reunions in Beth’s favorite colors. It was, said a classmate, “like a part of Beth being there with us.” At last Marie and Beth are reunited.
In 1984 the brick building housing her shop was gutted by fire. Marie persevered, and during the 11 months of rebuilding and remodeling, she continued her business in the basement of the Old Post Office on S. Auburn St., crafting her floral designs again in makeshift conditions.
“The fire led to a transformation,” Marie said. With the help of her son, Mark, Marie redesigned the building to add a balcony over the showroom and a state-of-the-art workspace for the designers she employed.
The renovated building was designated an historic landmark and recognized in 2013 by the California Heritage Council for exemplary historical preservation. “The interior was replaced with great sensitivity,” proclaimed the council.
Foothill Flower shop has been depicted in paintings, note cards and a Christmas ornament. At Christmas the 30-foot tree, rising from the showroom floor to a second story skylight high above, is reminiscent of the trees in the old City of Paris in San Francisco.
In 1967 Marie started a tradition of distributing Irish-themed carnation corsages to restaurant servers and downtown merchants on St. Patrick’s Day.
For 28 years Marie hosted a Santa Lucia festival every December. As many as 200 people crowded into her shop, which was decorated from floor to rafters for the Scandinavian festival. Marie proudly served meatballs and other Swedish delights.
Marie was a life member of the Grass Valley Soroptimists, served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and the regional FTD Florist association, and was grand marshal of the Fourth of July parade in 2007. The Grass Valley City Council and Governor Jerry Brown proclaimed Foothill Flowers 50th anniversary, October 21, 2016, “Marie Johnson the Flower Lady Day.”
Earlier this year Marie and her family received the Dame Shirley Saunders award from Hospice of the Foothills, an honor named for the founder of the modern hospice movement.
Marie was sympathetic to woman who were struggling and hired them to work in her shop. She provided practical training and work experience for many disabled students.
Marie lived and worked in the heart of Grass Valley and her devotion to the community never wavered. As a woman who had overcome much, Marie believed a person could never be unhappy when they looked into the face of flower.
For 52 years Foothill Flowers has delivered beautiful flowers to community and family events, to large gatherings and intimate occasions, and the evidence is in countless wedding and photographs albums on the shelves in Nevada County homes.
Marie created floral displays which enlivened gatherings, enhanced celebrations and softened sorrows, touching many lives through her work and kindness and warmth. “She played a part in so many lives,” a friend remembered.
Even as life was waning, and she wasn’t able to get to her shop every day, Marie said: “I still get excited about beautiful flowers.”
Marie will be buried beside her daughter in Grass Valley’s Greenwood Cemetery. Marie was predeceased by her parents, her daughter and her siblings, Thelma, Emil Jr, Norman and Melvin. She is survived by her two sons and siblings Marra P. Swan and Carl Larson and his wife Dee.
Mark and Todd are deeply grateful for the love and care provided to Marie in her last weeks. Thank you to Kathy Mederios and staff at SNMH; Dr Thomas Kanomata and staff; the Rev. Richard Johnson; Gage McKinney; Debbie Prisk Olsen; long-time friends Tawni and Diane; and the amazing staff at Hospice of the Foothills; and especially caregivers Karen, Wendy and Simone, who treated Marie like a second mom.
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