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East County Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 1 year ago

Digging for Treasure

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Nancy Johnson has spent most of her retirement with one foot in the past — and she couldn’t be happier about it.
by: Eric Snider Contributor

Nancy Johnson laughs a lot, and here’s one that really gets her going: “I get mail addressed to The Honorable Nancy R. Johnson,” she says and, on cue, lets out a hearty laugh. 

This is funny because Johnson is not a judge, or a high-ranking state official. The Greenbrook resident serves on two boards: Lakewood Ranch’s Community Development District 4, and she represents that group on the larger Inter-District Authority that includes the five CDDs. “We deal with earth-shattering issues like irrigation and maintenance of the common areas,” she says. “Which is not to say the work is insignificant. I want to help keep Lakewood Ranch the beautiful, green community it is.”

But she also understands that being a CDD board member is at or near the lowest rung of American politics — hence her amusement over “The Honorable.” Still, it is politics. “If I hadn’t run unopposed in 2012, I would have been on the presidential ballot,” she explains, amused. Appointed to CDD 4 that same year, she has not yet faced a challenger. Her current term expires in November. 

Johnson’s $400-a-month career in micro-politics is just one of her myriad outlets. At age 70, she is a case study in how to maximize retired life. Her core passion is genealogy. She is president of the Genealogical Society of Sarasota and the administrator of the Lakewood Ranch Genealogy Club.

She dutifully attends monthly meetings, but it goes way beyond that. Johnson is a hardcore digger. She came to her avocation post-retirement, when she finally had the time to delve into her family history. She grew up in Wynnewood, Pa., outside of Philadelphia on the Main Line. After graduating from Ursinus College, she earned a master’s in Spanish Literature at Villanova and an MBA at the Wharton School. That helped her launch a long and distinguished marketing career, largely working in Latin America.  

At her last job stop, in New Jersey, the pharmaceutical giant Schering-Plough offered Johnson a generous buyout. She took it, retired at age 56 and moved to Lakewood Ranch. Already a member the Daughters of the American Revolution, she began attending the chapter in Sarasota. “When I retired, I gave myself one goal,” she says. “My dad was still alive, and he didn’t know much about his past. I wanted to find an American Revolutionary patriot — that’s someone who fought or served — on his side of the family. I had one on my mother’s side and I knew his family had been here since Colonial times.”

Johnson has amassed an impressive collection of her ancestors’ possessions, including this leather Bible, which belonged to her great-great-grandfather.

So began a saga that lasted more than two years. Her online research was scant compared to the hours she logged doing hands-on work. She visited libraries, county courthouses and historical societies, searching through big old books — many of them handwritten — for property records, birth, death and marriage records, church records and military records. She even poked around cemeteries looking for tombstones. Her quest led her to a small town in the middle of Pennsylvania.

Pay dirt

Johann Georg Nungesser, a second-generation German-American, was her father’s great-great-great grandfather. He left his wife, seven sons and a daughter to tend their farm in Mifflinville, Pa., and volunteered for the Continental Army. He served three years as a foot soldier in the 6th Company, 6th Battalion, Northampton County Militia, fighting with George Washington in New York and New Jersey.

Since this discovery, Johnson’s interest in genealogy has intensified. She knows there are 7,146 people in her family tree; several Civil War patriots, an Irish bigamist, a passenger on the Mayflower, and people involved in late-17th century witch trials in Connecticut and Maryland (though none was on trial). 

“It’s a very expensive hobby,” she says with a full stop after each word. “But it’s so much fun. It’s addicting because you’re constantly finding something new, and that makes you want to find more discoveries.”

Last April, she traveled with fellow Lakewood Ranch resident and Genealogy Club member Karen Dwyer to Salt Lake City, Utah, to visit the Family History Library, the mecca of genealogical centers. “I’ll tell you this — she’s committed,” Dwyer says. “When she decides she’s going to do something she jumps in with both feet.”

Her immediate family tree is decidedly less complex. Johnson has one daughter — a fourth-year surgical resident at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Ariz., whom she largely raised by herself after a divorce. “She jokes with me that I should call her ‘doctor,’” Johnson says. “I tell her, ‘OK, if you call me The Honorable Nancy R. Johnson.”

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