Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 6 Summer 2004

In Memoriam: Alice W. Johnson

by Jo Anne Barton

[alice w. johnson photo]

Alice Webb Johnson was one of the most revered members of the Peacock-Harper Culinary History Collection Committee. She joined the committee soon after its founding in 1999 and remained an active member until her death on February 16, 2004. Alice was a graduate of Harrisonburg State Teachers College (now Madison University) in the class of 1935 and of the U.S. Army School of Dietetics. Alice's first job was a Home Demonstration Agent in Louisa County, VA. She reported for work on August 1, 1935 in a 1935 Plymouth coupe (strip model) which was equipped with high wheels, mud tires, a set of chains in the trunk. Her salary was $60.00 a month, half of which went to pay for room and board. When she finished the one-month training period, her salary increased to $90.00 per month with a travel allowance of $3.00 per month. Her office was heated by a King heater that she had to tend and had a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling but no electrical outlets and no running water.

After two years, she moved to Prince William County. She remembered that the second day she was in town, she and the other Home Demonstration Agent put on their white uniforms, loaded the car with pressure cookers and other canning supplies and went out to supervise the canning of vegetables. The canned vegetables would be used in soups for school lunches during the winter months in one of the rural schools. She married J. Benjamin Johnson and together they raised three sons.

She later taught science at Osbourn High School and Marsteller Middle School in Manassas, VA. She moved to Blacksburg to be near son Jim and his wife Janet. She soon made herself an integral part of the community. She was active in the local chapter of Home Economists in Home and Community, the BeeBurg Quilters, DAR, AARP, and Christ Episcopal Church in addition to her work on the Peacock-Harper Committee.

It was Alice who suggested that the committee raise funds to endow a scholarship honoring Janet Cameron, a nutrition specialist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service from 1931 to 1964. Janet was Alice's contemporary and they remained friends after Alice left the extension service. Alice valued Janet's contributions to home economics and nutrition and thought Janet should be recognized for it. Alice also had well organized collection of extension publications prepared by Janet and her fellow specialist Mary Thompson. Alice continued to use some of the recipes included in these publications and even prepared one of them (Persian Sweets) for a Peacock-Harper Committee meeting.

Alice also remembered Janet's suitcase of equipment that she carried with her when she went out to a county to do a training session. Alice assembled a similar collection of equipment and discussed the items in it for a Committee program. An article about it appeared in an earlier edition of Culinary Thymes. Alice pointed out that when she and Janet were starting out, most Home Demonstration Agents lived in a room—not an apartment or house—so they didn't have kitchen equipment. Specialists usually traveled by train, thus the need to have the equipment in a closed container.

Alice also knew others who were friends of Janet's and contacted them asking for their recollections of Janet and asking for donations of materials for the Collection as well as money for the scholarship. A notebook was put together highlighting Janet's professional activities and her contributions to the community. Alice was able to find some 60 publications by Janet to include in the notebook that is now in the Peacock-Harper Collection.

When the Cameron Scholarship was fully endowed, Alice suggested that we also establish a scholarship honoring Dr. Jean Phillips who had been a member of the faculty in the Department of Human Nutrition and Foods from 1969 until her retirement in 1986. Alice had gotten acquainted with Jean through Christ Episcopal Church and they lived only a few blocks apart. Again Alice was active in getting together information about Jean—she persuaded her to write an autobiography—and in identifying potential donors to the scholarship fund. Alice also helped to pay for a mailing to former students telling them of the scholarship drive and asking them to make a contribution. The Committee decided to honor Alice on her 90th birthday by making contributions to the Phillips Scholarship. It goes without saying that Alice was a major contributor to both scholarship funds.

Although these tangible contributions were important, even more important to Committee members were her warm, gracious manner, her wisdom, her ability to relate things that happened in earlier times, her openness to new experiences, her positive attitude, her quiet but persistent way of getting things done, and her caring. She was a mentor for all of us as we age!

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Last modified on: 10.04.10 by Mark B. Gerus
herb background from Old Thyme Inn