After 60-plus Valentine’s Days, Johnsons’ love is still going strong
Longtime Gainesville residents Rex and Frances Johnson expect to celebrate another Valentine’s Day together Friday, still enjoying each other’s company just as they’ve done for more than 63 Valentine’s Days now.
They probably met as children when Frances’ mother, the late Canzada Jenkins, brought her into the store owned by Rex’s parents, the late Frank and Jessie Johnson, but the sparks wouldn’t fly until several years later. They both graduated from Gainesville High School, but Frances was only a fifth-grader when Rex graduated in 1947.
She graduated in 1954. That was the same year Rex came home after serving two years in the Army to join his parents in working at Johnson’s Store on the west side of the square. By then, Frances was the soda fountain girl at Mahan’s Drug Store next to the Kerr Chevrolet dealership where Rex’s best friend, Wilbur Cowart worked. Sometimes, when Rex would walk from his family’s store up the street to the Chevrolet garage to visit with Wilbur, he would stop by Mahan’s for a cup of coffee.
“That’s where we started getting acquainted,” Rex said. “We shook hands, you might say.”
One suspects Rex drank a lot of coffee back in those days.
When Frances changed jobs and moved to the Dairy Princess, just north of today’s Dollar General store, Rex would stop by after work.
Then, finally, “We started going on dates,” Frances said.
“It was a while, though. It wasn’t a grab-and-go deal,” Rex quipped.
And then, after a year or so of dating, Rex’s pal Jolly Pace drove him to West Plains to buy a diamond engagement ring at a jewelry store there. It cost $100, and of course Frances still has it. “Gold with silver on the top and a diamond with two little diamonds on each side,” she said.
Rex didn’t get down on one knee. “We were kind of green – no fancy proposal stuff,” Rex said, adding, “Now we’ve seen how you’re supposed to do it in movies.”
They were married Nov. 18, 1956, at the Gainesville First Christian Church, which is now the Ozark County Volunteer Library. The congregation had no acting pastor at that time, so John Holmes, pastor at the Baptist Church down the street, performed the ceremony. Rex’s brother, Bob Johnson, was best man; Frances’ sister-in-law, Louetta Jenkins, was the maid of honor. Good friends Joe and Bonnie Ebrite hosted a small reception for them at their home two doors down from the church.
After the party, they settled into Rex’s brand-new 1956 red-and-white Chevy Impala (artfully decorated by their friends) and headed for Gatlinburg, Tennessee, stopping at the Del Rex Motel in southeast Missouri that first night.
The next day they were cruising along, high on honeymoon love, when the brand-new car suddenly sputtered and died. It started up though, and off they went. Then it died again. “It would run 100 miles per hour and then die, flood out,” Rex said. They stopped at the first Chevy dealer they came to and were told they needed new points and plugs – which perplexed the young couple since they were driving a brand-new car.
“I’m surprised Rex even had enough money for points and plugs,” Frances said. They got back on the road, but after momentarily reaching highway speeds, the car began dying again. They stopped at the next Chevy dealer and were told again that the car needed new points and plugs.
They reached Nashville and enjoyed a visit to Andrew Jackson’s homestead and other tourist spots, but they never made it all the way to Gatlinburg. When they returned to Gainesville, Wilbur Cowart put the car up on the rack and discovered water in the gas tank. The gas tank had to be removed and drained so their new Impala would run properly.
They happily settled into married life, moving into a little house on Second Street behind the Chevrolet garage. Next they moved into a newly built house on what is now Third Street they bought from Marvin Johnson completely furnished.
Rex worked at Johnson’s Store, which was open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. six days a week. In 1959, he took over the business when Rex’s dad, Frank, became Gainesville postmaster. Frances tended to their home and growing family. By 1967, they had three children: Teresa, Lisa and Eric.
Frances helped out in the store occasionally, but most of the time, Rex was assisted by his mother, Jessie, or one of their employees, including, over the years, Ola Kirkpatrick, Alice Bales, Doris Douglas and Pansy McGhee.
A little less than 25 years ago, the Johnsons sold the store to Curtis Department Store. The space is now occupied by Deb & Lou’s Cafe.
Asked for advice about successfully sharing more than 63 years of marriage, Rex said, “You both need to enjoy the same things.”
“We would go bowling with a group of friends, sometimes on a team in Mountain Home,” Frances said. “And we loved to go square dancing.”
They also enjoyed “going to market” together in Kansas City to select merchandise for the store for the coming season.
They were baptized together by the late Wiley McGhee in the river at Tecumseh, and they’re still faithful supporters of the First Christian Church. Also, Frances accompanies Rex to most Thursday meetings of the Gainesville Lions Club.
And, although it’s not something they can say they’ve enjoyed, they’ve survived the trials and challenges of Rex’s 18-year battle with colon cancer, first diagnosed in 2002.
In a story in 2012 profiling Rex as that year’s Relay for Life honorary chairman, they told the story of how Frances had prompted Rex to see a doctor when he first started seeing symptoms. Then she made sure he had that first colonoscopy, where the diagnosis was made and several years of treatment followed, most of them at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, always together.
Ten years after his diagnosis, in 2012, one of the specialists in Houston told Rex, “You shouldn’t be alive.” But because his cancer was caught early, and because of good treatments, he overcame the odds. And now, another eight years have passed, and the Johnsons are still celebrating their life together, “taking it one day at a time,” Frances said.
“I’ve always loved him, that’s for sure,” she said. “And I’ve tried to be a good wife.”
“She’s a great cook!” Rex bragged. And then he added, “We still haven’t made it to Gatlinburg.”