Sunnyside Village residents George and Janice Johnson tell one another they love each other “many times each day.”
It’s a principle they have lived by for 75 years.
“We’re still very much in love — thankful for all the years together. It’s been many wonderful years of ministry,” said George Johnson, whose career as a Baptist pastor spanned multiple churches.
On June 5, friends and acquaintances of the couple filled much of the auditorium at Sunnyside Village for a celebration of their 75th anniversary, which hosted speakers including Larry Potts, a former pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Venice.
A faithful life
The decadeslong relationship of George Johnson, 97, and Janice, 98, has been rooted in their faith from the start.
It began at the youth group of Bellerose Baptist Church on Long Island where they met.
Each Saturday, many teenagers would head into New York City for a rally, Word of Life Fellowship, and in the afternoon, would head to the automat, a type of vending machine-based cafeteria that was common during the era.
World War II was underway, and as the young people passed through Times Square, they would see groups of military representatives inviting the public to serve. At the time, George Johnson was serving in the Navy. His reason for choosing to enlist in 1944 had been his father, Francis Johnson, who served in World War I.
“It instilled in us as a family a tremendous sense of loyalty and patriotism, and I felt it my duty to serve in the Navy,” he said, calling his service a “special privilege.”
One such evening, a large Word of Life rally was held at Carnegie Hall, where an invitation was given to young people to devote their lives to serving God. The Johnsons remember that night as the time they responded to that request, but also the one that George Johnson asked if he could sit beside Janice, whose maiden name is Clougher.
As Janice headed out to eat with a group of the other girls, George asked if he could come along. Feeling “a little embarrassed,” Janice told him that the rest of the group were girls.
He tagged along anyway.
“I had my eye on one girl,” he said.
That was also the night he asked her for their first date.
Their dates were a little different from those of other young people, Janice said. Starting with their first date, which also involved playing a game of checkers at Janice's house (She was dealing with a blood clot in her leg and could not leave home) they recited Bible verses they had memorized, and prayed together.
In 1948, they were married at Bellerose Baptist Church in a service attended by 200-250 guests and featuring a song, “It was Heaven’s Grace That Made Thee Mine,” composed by the church’s organist Norman J. Clayton and dedicated to the couple.
George Johnson still had another year and a half at Houghton University, a Christian liberal arts college in Houghton, New York, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in history, the cost of which was covered by his Navy service.
Previously, he had studied aeronautical engineering at Brooklyn Technical High School.
Afterwards, he attended Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia for three years, through the financial support of Janice Johnson, who had attended the Pratt Secretarial School and worked in roles in New York City including Secretary to the Editor at McGraw Hill Publishing and Business Week Magazine.
At George's graduation, the wives at the seminary received a piece of recognition, too, noted Janice — a “Ph.T.,” which stood for “Put Husband Through.”
George then went on to serve as a pastor at churches around the country, with Janice also working at each church.
First was New Durham Chapel in Piscataway, New Jersey, where they served from 1950 to 1959. George called the church, which seated about 75 people but has now grown into a larger, multiethnic congregation, “a tiny country church,” that saw “wonderful growth.”
They went on to locations including a brand new church, Brentwood Bible Church in St. Louis, Missouri, which, due to its belief in performing missionary work, sent them overseas to other countries.
The couple visited Germany at the time the Berlin Wall was in place, and visited Israel during the Six-Day War, when they stayed in a kibbutz and climbed Masada, an ancient fortress in the southern Judean Desert of southern Israel.
Other travels included Switzerland and France, and locations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
They went on to serve at Clinton Hill Baptist Church in New Jersey, and then the Association of North American Missions in Missouri, through which they travelled together to 49 of 50 U.S. states, with George Johnson also visiting Hawaii. They also served at Venice Bible Church in Venice, Florida, and Bethel Baptist Church in Englewood, Florida.
Their daughter, Janice Nothum, who lives locally, orchestrated the anniversary celebration.
“We didn’t know all she had planned,” said George Johnson. “We are wonderfully surprised.”
Their life together continues
After the couple's retirement, their work did not end.
They volunteered for a Christian publisher, Nelson Publishing, and have over 2,500 hours of volunteer service at Venice Memorial Hospital, where George Johnson was a Surgical Transporter and Janice Johnson was a receptionist.
After many years of happiness, they’re continuing to find it at the independent living village in Sunnyside Village.
“This is a really super retirement community,” said George Johnson, complimenting the warmth and friendliness of the whole staff. “We feel exceedingly blessed to be here at Sunnyside, as well as being together here."
Janice Johnson said the place has “a family feeling,” with neighbors helping one another.
They stay occupied with activities that include reading, music and picture puzzles, singing twice a week with a neighborhood group. Janice Johnson enjoys knitting hats, sending them to a New York City ministry for the winter.
“They’re such a wonderful blessing to everybody,” said Regina Potts, wife of Larry Potts, associate pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Venice. “Everybody that knows them, knows that sense of peace they have in serving God."
The couple said their happiness comes from putting God first in their relationship, and they continue to practice their faith together, reading the Bible and praying together each day.
They said another factor guiding their marriage is that they always mutually agreed on major purchases or decisions before taking action.
Also, never a day goes by that they do not say “I love you” multiple times.
Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.