Remembering Mel and Lucy Johnson, by Markus Krueger, Programming Director
I read in the paper that my friend Mel Johnson passed away on December 18 at age 102. Mel was one of the original volunteers of the Hjemkomst Center when the museum opened its doors in 1986. I spent many Monday mornings sitting next to him at the museum’s admissions desk. He rang people in and ushered them into the theater to watch the movie about the Viking Ship while I waited to give them a tour of the Hopperstad Stave Church. Not a lot of tourists come to Fargo during the winter months, so we had plenty of time to chat. He once told me that he took a tumble off his bicycle, so he was probably going to stop riding. I was shocked and impressed. “Mel! You’re in your mid-90s! You’re still riding a bicycle?!?”
Mel grew up in Fergus Falls, the son of Norwegian immigrants. In February of 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mel entered the US Army at age 21. He served in Europe until his honorable discharge two months after the war ended in 1945. He deserved a good life when he got home, and he got it. He landed a sweet career as a travelling ice cream salesman.
Mel worked for Muggs Ice Cream Shop in Fergus Falls before the war and he returned after a couple years at the U of M. In the summer of 1948, Lucille Haugen, a young teacher, got a summer job at Muggs. She was smart, beautiful, good natured with a warm smile, and half a century later she would be one of the finest tour guides for Moorhead’s Hopperstad Stave Church. Mel and Lucy married two weeks after meeting each other. He would have been a fool to wait longer. They were blessed with three kids and 73 anniversaries together before her passing 11 months ago.
In 1956, Mel and Lucy moved to the booming town of Moorhead, Minnesota. To thank Mel and his fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines for saving the world the previous decade, our government passed the GI Bill, which gave them certain benefits like free college tuition and cheap home loans. The Johnsons built a brand new rambler a few blocks outside of town (now roughly the city center), about the corner of 17th St. and 17th Ave S. It cost them $12,500 to build. Zillow says its worth close to $200,000 today. I visited their home once – original mid-century modern woodwork, an old photo of Lucy that made me wonder why Mel waited so long to marry her, and a freezer full of ice cream.
Lucy went back to teaching elementary school. Each volunteered at the Hjemkomst Center when they retired. It makes me sad to realize I’ll never see them again. But I imagine a summer evening long ago, Mel behind the wheel of a classic 1950s car on his way home to Lucy and the kids and a bowl of ice cream. It was sweet knowing you both.