The Life and Legacy of Viola Lauper Johnson

February 13, 2010

Written and delivered by grandson, David Peterson

From the writings of Viola Lauper Johnson:

I vividly remember the day of my baptism - the 24th of September, 1921. Sometime during the early afternoon, my mother called me from the outside yard, reminding me I was to leave for my baptism. My brother Marcel was to accompany me, so he brought Quince, our riding horse, from the corral. He bridled her and gave me a 'leg up', which was our way of boosting each other to the horse's back (no saddle). Then Marcel pulled the pony alongside the fence which helped him climb up in front of me. Away we galloped across country roads and fields to connect with our father who was to come from the field wherever he had been working. We met at the flume connection from the large irrigation canal. At the intersection, there was a spillway which formed a deep and a splashy basin, and it was there I was baptized. A ward member and the Ward Clerk were on hand to make it official. I went into the water in the same little gingham dress I had been wearing about for a couple of days, plus my underwear, and with bare feet. After the sacred ordinance, Marcel loaded me back onto our horse and away we bounced toward home - my wet hair and clothing flapping and swaying in the breeze. Back at home, we resumed our chores. I know that there is little resemblance or similarity to today's baptisms, yet I know that the ceremony for me was just as valid as any that have taken place since or anywhere.

This is one of the vivid pictures that my grandmother painted for us, her children, and although it has become familiar through repetition, it tells of a life that is rather different from the ones we lead today. Grandma's life spanned many changes, not only within the confines of her own life circle, but in the world around her. Her story is a long one, so I am a bit at a loss as to where I should begin and what exactly which excerpts I should share that would be a meaningful and appropriate reflection of the life she lead.

Grandma had mixed feelings about the formalities of funerals and she didn't much like being in the spotlight. But after giving it some careful thought, I figured that there just wasn't any way we could hold a service in her honor without mentioning her at some point. Yes, Grandma gave us some specific instructions on what she would like to have for this occasion, but fortunately, she gave us a little leeway, so I am taking advantage of that fact, and I will proceed to mention her a few times in the story of her life.

Not very long ago, Grandma and I were remembering the occasion of a funeral that occurred several years back in San Francisco. It was at the passing of a friend of hers, Annie Linden, a Danish sister who was a member of Sunset Ward. The family and ward asked if Grandma would not agree to speak at the funeral. I believe that Grandma tried to convince them that surely there was someone else that they would rather hear than her, but they persisted and she reluctantly agreed, out of respect for her friend. Grandma, as we well know, was much more comfortable speaking one-on-one and would just as soon never speak before a group. Nevertheless, she did her duty and prepared for the occasion. However, on arrival at the chapel, preoccupied as she was, and fighting with an umbrella, I believe, she did not take care where she was walking and she ran smack into a door. The blow knocked her to the ground and knocked the glasses from her face. No one else was in the immediate vicinity to see the incident, so she managed alone to get to her feet and dab at her eyes which were smarting from the hit. As she wobbled along, a family member did come along to escort her. Grandma was embarrassed. She thought for sure that he was reasoning to himself that she had already lost her composure and for that reason alone needed assistance.

I contrast her experience on that occasion with my own today. I don't have the excuse of having run into a door, yet I too feel a little wobbly and I am fearful of losing composure. I don't mind public speaking so much, but on this occasion, I feel rather inadequate. I do not deal well with the emotions of the situation. So I ask for your tolerance and understanding. Emotions are near the surface not because of an overwhelming sadness, although I am sad that Grandma is no longer here with us, but rather they are a result of my recognizing the great love found in this room as we consider our shared experience and how much Grandma Vi means to us.

I would like to take a detour, as it were, to take care of that portion that Grandma would probably characterize as the "business portion" of this address, that is, a general, chronological overview of her life. I hope it doesn't sound too antiseptic. I will later try to round it out a bit with some personal anecdotes and observations.

Viola Emma Lauper was born on April 12, 1913, the 8th child to Emile and Emma Lauper, then living in the very small farming community of Elwood, near Tremonton in northern Utah. Joining her older Sister Alice, baby Viola was very welcomed as a second daughter, after another daughter, Else, had died as an infant a few years before. Two more brothers would follow, and the family of 11 would then move to the dry farmland of Millard county in central western Utah. I don't think that it would be an exaggeration to say that they "eked out" a living in their humble circumstances. This early environment would have a lifetime effect on Viola, contributing to her attitudes about hard work. She also had to learn early on to deal with loss as the family lost two of their sons due to unfortunate accidents. When the family subsequently moved to southern California, it was just months before the onset of the Depression, so their attempt to escape the poverty of their farm life met with some great obstacles. Still, the young Viola managed to attend Business College in Los Angeles, staying with a family and working for them in exchange for room and board. There she developed essential skills that would assist her the rest of her life. Following the passing of her father in 1936, the younger siblings and their mother transplanted to the East Bay Area. It was there that Viola encountered her husband-to-be, a travelling salesman, Joseph Richards Johnson. Viola had been raised by devoted parents who taught her the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so it was only appropriate that she meet her husband, who shared her principles and values, in Oakland's Dimond Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1940 and it was a year later, back in Oakland, that their first daughter Linda joined them. After spending the war years working in Chicago, the young family initially rented a place in San Francisco, but soon bought a place not far from the home of her eldest brother Serge. This, of course, is the house on Noriega Street, that we have long referred to as 3030. It was there that they welcomed two more children to the family, JoAnn and JR. It was also there that they became stalwarts of the Sunset Ward, husband Joe even serving as Bishop. In 1958, Viola's mother passed away at the age of 77. Linda married David Peterson in 1961 and the first grandchild, (that would be me), was born in 1962. The following year came with an unexpected shock: while the family was vacationing on the Russian River in northern California, Viola's husband Joe suffered a heart attack and died. JoAnn and JR were just teenagers, and their mother had no recourse but to enter the workforce to support the family. She called upon her earlier business skills and became the Executive Secretary for the local branch of a large industrial engine company. She worked there, in a high-rise office building in downtown San Francisco, until her retirement in 1978. The family of daughter Linda continued growing, bringing two granddaughters and another grandson into the fold. JoAnn married John Storheim in 1967 and had four boys of her own. Even though Viola had retired from commercial work, she continued to offer great service to her family, staying in her daughter's homes for extended periods when help was needed. Viola maintained a close relationship with all her siblings. They regularly gathered for family events, and travelled together on several occasions. When son JR married Susan Rush in Hawaii, she also travelled there. I joined my grandmother in San Francisco, in the 1990's, and for that period we managed to keep an eye on one another. Unfortunately, during this period, the trials of old age begin to catch up with one after another of her siblings. She spent significant time at the bedsides of each her 1 sister and 5 brothers, and of their wives, as each preceded her to the other side. When daughter JoAnn remarried, to Paul Miner, four more children of the Miner family became part of the brood of grandchildren. In 2004, while visiting in Salt Lake just prior to a family reunion, Viola was hospitalized and underwent emergency surgery. We thought that we might lose her at that time, but she rallied and stayed with us a little while longer. From then until now, she has continued to stay in Salt Lake City, conversing with family and friends via telephone and entertaining a regular parade of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

That was nothing more than the barest of outlines for a long life of nearly 97 years. My only comfort is that many of the things I will leave out can be found in Grandma's personal history at the family's web site. Most of it is in her own words. Because of the difficulty in reducing a long life to a few minutes, you will soon realize that this address is too long. I am sorry. I hope you will indulge me.

To help provide a little order to my thoughts, I have chosen to focus on some individual attributes and word associations that begin with specific letters. I hope that it doesn't sound too contrived, and with your allowance in this, I think you will eventually see how they fit together at the end.

I is for Independent - And might I add, fiercely independent.

No doubt much of this was encouraged by the hardships of her young life and the necessity of living on her own for so many years. But life's ups and downs tend to only strengthen the core attributes of our personalities. Grandma was a strong woman, from the beginning, and from a line of strong women.

None of us could say to ourselves, as soon as I take care of this one thing, then I'll go and help Grandma: invariably would have the task already done. Grandma liked to approach a problem on her own terms and solve it on her own terms.

Hard work was a policy and a remedy for whatever life dealt. I don't know that Grandma was the first to explain to me what the phrase "elbow grease" means, but she certainly showed me what it meant. Whenever I use those words, it is her elbows that I picture, attacking a dirty pot or a stubborn stain with fierceness and gusto.

When Grandma stayed at our house, she often slept in the bunk bed underneath me. On the infrequent occasions that she was not up before me, we would talk while still in bed, but then suddenly she would declare: Well, time to hit the hames. Not having grown up on a farm, I had no idea what "hames" were. She expained that the hames were the part of the harness against which a horse pushes when hitched to a heavy load. Hitting the hames meant it was time to start pushing and doing some real work. Grandma would tell me "too many people think they are entitled to ride in the handcart; not enough are willing to push.

The infirmities of old age brought on a new and particular challenge. While her mind remained active and vigorous, the body was not always very cooperative. I know that it pained her not to be able to physically carry out what she mentally wanted to do. Perhaps in an attempt to not give in to the demands of age, she refused to call her cane a cane; it was always "my stick". Sometimes you had to admire her determination; sometimes you thought that rather than I for Independent, it was "A" for "arnery".

L is for Long-Suffering - This adjective has several aspects to it. First of all, Grandma was not a stranger to pain and personal suffering.

  • As a young girl her hands were severely frost-bitten one day on the way to school. She lived with some funny thumbs and fingers, as a result. Later on, severe arthritis in her hands was very bothersome.
  • Grandma was also confronted with the unexpected loss of loved ones on too many occasions.
  • And in these last years, she has had to deal with a body that was regularly breaking down when her mind still wanted to get up and go.

Yet through it all, she simply "carried on". Her hands did not keep her from becoming an expert typist and seamstress. And even though she might complain about something on occasion, as we all do, that certainly was not her usual approach. More often it was the case that we had to coax out any description of what was bothering her. Almost always she would deflect questions about her state of being, instead replacing it with concerns for the questioner's health, or to speak of another friend or family member who needed attention. Grandma, through her own sufferings, and just as part of her personality, had the gift of empathy. She understood and felt for the sufferings of others and reached out to offer whatever assistance and comfort she could offer. I think this was certainly one of her Christ-like attributes.

Grandma's empathy was not just for people, but for plants as well. She especially liked nursing along some tender, struggling seedling, urging it to respond with growth and heartiness. Gardening was a favorite activity and although she appreciated the beautiful flowers, I think she just as much liked to see any plant achieve robustness under her care. However, if a plant was not responsive to her efforts, she might take it as a personal affront. As an example, we can turn to the poor agapanthus. It is a plant with long green stalks and clusters of purple or white blossoms. Two doors down, they were growing quite well without anyone caring "one wit" for them, as she would report. "As a matter of fact", she continued, "they thrive on neglect". So, she got some for her own yard. Those agapanthus, she would say, "acted downright puny just to spite me" and they actually died on her. From that point one on, whenever anyone suggested she might like agapanthus, she turned up her nose, miffed.

Y is for Yeast - Okay, "yeast" sounds a bit odd in a tribute. But what I'm actually trying to acknowledgement is her baking prowess. There were always cookies in the old aluminum cookie can. There were always cakes at birthday time, often in the shape of some animal. But the stars among her baked goods were the rolls, the crescent rolls and the cinnamon rolls. I cannot think of any special-occasion dinners when we did not have rolls. And all of us kids have participated in the ritual of rolling out the dough, brushing with melted butter, cutting the triangles and then rolling up the strips. And although I love the completed pies, it was always a special treat to make the leftover crust dough into pie crackers.

It is with some pleasure that I note that this baking was a legacy from her own childhood that she passed on to us: she speaks of the cherished memory of baking with her mother and siblings, and rolling out the dough with whatever bottles could be had, since they didn't have a rolling pin.

The baking that Grandma turned out was sometimes in stark contrast to some of her own food preferences. She liked dry toast. It seemed the dryer and older the better. If we saved her a piece of bread that we thought had reached the pinnacle of wizened crustiness, she would accept it gladly and promptly lay it out in the oven under a low heat to dry it even further. Last year, after one of her visits to San Francisco, I discovered a piece of toast that she had squirreled away and forgotten. Weeks had gone by, but just to show you how well trained I was, I actually considered taking it to her in Salt Lake.

Grandma also liked her meat well done. We were also trained to set aside the most well-done portions for her. As far as we could tell, "well-done" was code for "nigh unto burnt". And if something did get a little burned, we always comforted one another saying: "don't worry, Grandma will eat it!"

F is for Friend

As a young boy, I would regularly visit Grandma in San Francisco, many times attending the Sunset Ward. Invariably, she would introduce a new person to me, and she would always preface it with the introduction: "This is our good friend, so-and-so". I was quite amazed. To me it seemed that she was friends with everybody, and I don't think that was far off the mark. The truth was that she was able to converse in pleasant conversation with just about anybody. I think that this was partly due to the fact she showed a genuine interest in whomever she was with and encouraged them to talk about themselves. The empathy of which I spoke was evident in her relationships. In a way it reminds me of the story of Ruth and Naomi. When Grandma become your friend, your concerns became her concerns, your needs became her needs, and she would follow you to the ends of the earth to be a source of comfort and aid.

In San Francisco, as you know, there is a large population of people who have immigrated from various nations of the world. Grandma did not let simple obstacles like barriers in language or differences in culture get in the way. She welcomed many new Asian friends into her home and into her life. She shepherded them as best she could into the complexities of American life.

F is also for Family. Grandma was a champion for family. There was no more fervent rooter than Grandma. There was no one more quick to broadcast the good news of family events and accomplishments. There was no one more up-to-date on family doings than Grandma. Her interest in family extended from the present well into the past. Grandma took very seriously the exhortation to search out one's family and bring them the saving ordinances of the Temple. She did before it was "chic". She did it without any formal training. She did it when others were looking for excuses. And most amazingly, she did it without a computer! Many of the family have thick books of genealogical records, thanks to her efforts. It has been reported that she personally kept in business several of the copy firms in her neighborhood, especially those that would give her a discount on large batches of copies.

was responsible for getting her siblings to start on the task of recording their personal histories. Yes, she sometimes had to nag, but the result is a treasure worth its weight in gold. All of these stories are on the family web site. If you showed an inkling of interest, Grandma would regale you with tales of her ancestry. How she loved to tell of dear little grandma Else, or Grandpa Wooden-Leg or gold-plated Uncle Julius. These were people that had sacrificed for their families, acts that earned them Grandma's great respect and pride. Through these stories Grandma has shown us all that family history can be much more than names and dates: they're real people whose legacy flows in our veins. Ironically, Grandma was reluctant when it came to writing her own history, and it was my mom who had to pester this time, finally getting her to work on it by asking specific questions about the different parts of her life.

Grandma was a proud and ardent supporter of the yearly Lauper Family Reunion. Her policy was summed up in her statement: "You don't have to love everyone in your family, you don't even have to like everyone, but you must know who everyone is!" I don't think anyone in the family can approach her track record of attendance, particularly a string of more than 30 reunions in a row. Because of Grandma's efforts, I know my relatives. And as an added bonus, I actually like most of them!

Grandma had a great relationship with her siblings. They supported one another through thick and thin. For a long time, most of them lived in and around the Bay Area, so it was not too difficult to gather and enjoy one another's company. It helped that Great-grandmother Emma lived at Grandma's house, so naturally it was a magnet for family gatherings. Grandma would sometimes describe the giver of a party as "the hostess with the mostes'". This was not a label that she would ever give to herself, but I think the title fits: Grandma would bend over backwards to accommodate her guests, especially to lay out an appetizing spread. She knowingly said of her family: "they're good feeders," and feed them she did. Any anniversary was an excuse for a get-together. She and her siblings particularly enjoyed celebrating their parents' birthdays, even after their parents had passed on. Interestingly enough, February 13 is Great-grandfather Emile's birthday; he was born 141 years ago today in Switzerland.

F can also be for Frugal. Thrifty might be a better way of saying it, but that doesn't start with F. At any rate, Grandma learned as a youngster that being thrifty or frugal was a matter of survival. If she were asked to characterize those early years, she would invariably exclaim: We were survivors!

At one point several years ago, a painter came to work on the house. As he walked through the garage to the back, he smiled when he saw every nook, cranny and cubby hole crammed with supplies and other necessities. But then he turned solemn; he said: I have seen it time and again in the houses of her generation; they can't forget the hard times. They are compelled to save everything for the hard times ahead.

Surely Grandma's thriftiness allowed her to provide opportunities that otherwise would have escaped his. When it was time to share, she was not frugal. We have all benefitted from her generosity.

Her ability to squeeze the last bit out of anything was at times amazing, but sometimes a cause for eye-rolling. She was a master with a spatula: a mayonnaise or jam jar was absolutely clear after she finished with them. And one of the running family jokes was that you couldn't travel between California and Utah without checking in with her for an item to be transported, thus avoiding a shipping charge. If she found out you had made such a trip without registering with her first, you were in trouble! She had a whole department of packing materials and without a second thought could bandage up a package within an inch of its life.

A is for Aware. One of the family's silly complaints is that we couldn't get anything past Grandma, at least not without great effort - and I am not talking about just when we were kids. Hand in hand with her independence, Grandma was on top of her affairs until the very end. Even in the hospital she was scribbling in a notebook with directions to the family. And she was on top of everyone else's affairs too - not in a busy-body sort of way, but as a thoroughly interested party desiring to share in everyone's joys and woes. She made it her business to be informed. Among other things, her calendar of birthdays was always close at hand, chock-full of dates for both family and friends. Grandma was the go-to point person if you wanted to know what was going on. Haven't we all been amazed at one point or another at the things she remembers about each one of us?? Grandma was an ardent reader and was also very interested in current events. Some of her favorite shows, like Perry Mason and Matlock, revolved around courtroom drama. She was also interested in politics and regularly watched the news reviews and round-tables on PBS. It was with some dismay that she realized that personally I didn't much share this interest and would not respond very well to her attempts to get me to enter into a "discussion" of the latest political intrigue. Maybe that's part of the reason I earned her affectionate nickname of "pig-headed".

"A" could also stand for Appreciative. I would definitely say that this was another of Grandma's Christ-like attributes. Thankfulness played a central role in her prayers. She did not take her blessings for granted and she was quick to thank you for any efforts on her behalf. Can't you just see her grasping your hands and exclaiming, "Thank you, thank you!" ?

Here is an excerpt from one of Grandma's testimonies:

I thank my Heavenly Father, together with my goodly earthly parents, for my life here on earth. This great privilege of coming here, possessing a strong body, a healthy mind, is not by chance. I believe I chose to come; further, that I chose my special parents; and I am without adequate expression as to my gratitude to them for their tremendous love of me and the wonderful teachings given me by their words and actions.

D is for Devoted. Although I have already discussed devotion to friends and family, here I will touch upon Grandma's devotion to the Gospel. Grandma was raised in a home of parents who cherished the Gospel. Both had sacrificed much to leave behind their European homes and come to Utah. Both sacrificed much to make their family work. Grandma many times told how her father, with misty eyes, would state that if the Gospel had not been true, he would have long ago gone back. My mother, on seeing Switzerland for the first time a few years ago, renewed her amazement that he could leave behind such a beautiful and fruitful place in exchange for the dry desert of Utah. It was this kind of devotion that was instilled in the young members of Grandma's family. They all went on to become missionaries, leaders and dedicated servants to those around them.

Grandma was an excellent and fervent pray-er. This she had also learned from a young age. One example was when her mother was bedridden after the birth of her youngest brother, Ralph. She was diagnosed with some vague form of cancer. Her father gathered the children and firmly pronounced "Now, if you want your mother to live, we must pray". Grandma reports: "He had us kneel about him and he prayed, and Mother lived! She outlived her doctors. It was a miracle!" Grandma learned the lesson of the power of prayer, and to this day we exclaim to one another: "Grandma must have prayed you better, or prayed you safely there."

Grandma relished the words of the prophets. She was especially attuned to the efforts of President Gordon B. Hinckley. She thought there was no greater example of sweet, humble service, yet strength and perseverance in making great things happen. As she said, he had vision and vitality, yet was without guile. If pressed, however, she would admit that he wasn't particularly blessed in the good looks department, but that didn't matter one bit: he was her kind of prophet!

Lastly, I would share a lesson in faith that Grandma learned. Again, it is in her own words:

My husband, Joseph R. Johnson, taught me a valuable lesson on the subject of Priesthood Blessings. Our friend Marba Snow was one of our nearby neighbors while we resided in Chicago. She became dangerously ill during the night. Her husband, Jonathan, telephoned asking if my Joe would come to their home to assist in a Blessing for the sick. Joe dressed and immediately left as requested. I was very disturbed, imagining the worst and started thinking “what if Marba dies??? How will Jonathan manage the young children??? I even read myself into situations that included my taking one or two of the children into my care.” I paced the floor instead of going back to bed. My Joe returned and I more or less smothered his report of her illness and condition with my expressions of gloom. Joe brought me to my senses with “Now I went down there to ask our Heavenly Father to help Marba regain her health, so I am going back to bed and want you to do the same.” His reasonable attitude taught me of the purpose of a Blessing and emphasized the important factor of Faith. I learned an important lesson that night.

Grandma has taught us, her family and friends, many lessons, through her example and through her words. Many of those words came on all sorts of scraps of paper, dutifully typed on her Selectric Typewriter. Later she embraced email, which brought with it the challenges of learning to use a computer. But she deemed it worth the effort: that way, she did not have to bother with stamps and envelopes!

  • I, Independent
  • L, Long-suffering
  • Y, Yeast
  • F, Friend, Family and Frugal
  • AA, Aware and Appreciative
  • D, Devoted

ILYFAAD - It was a favorite closing of hers on the many letters sent to family members. It stands for "I Love You Forever and a Day". I can think of no closing more appropriate for my words today. Thank you Grandma. I love you forever and a day.

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