Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 8, 2013

The love almost lost

The Johnsons celebrate 74 years and how they found each other

By Kelly Lafferty Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — For 21-year-old Jean Penwell, it was a fairly normal Wednesday in Noblesville during May of 1939. Her shift working at a beauty parlor ended at noon, and she, along with her two sisters, were waiting on the curb by the courthouse for their brother to pick them up and give them a ride home.

Alfred “Tookie” Johnson, 21, also happened to be in Noblesville that day. He was walking around town with a couple of buddies. They were on a short leave from being stationed at Fort Harrison in Indianapolis.

When he glimpsed at Jean sitting on the curb, he was hooked.

“I just thought: She’s for me,” he said.

The guys approached the sisters and offered to give them a car ride back to the girls’ home. The girls refused at first.

“I thought, oh no, that’s a pick up,” Jean said.

They eventually agreed, and the group squeezed into the small car.

“The car was like the old-timey cars,” Jean said. “There wasn’t a lot of room. We were packed in there like sardines.”

They were so packed, that Jean sat on Tookie’s lap during the drive.

“I kinda felt guilty,” she said. “I thought, boy, my mom and dad are not gonna like this.”

Even though Tookie was smitten the first time he saw Jean, the feeling was not mutual.

“I didn’t really like him at first,” she said. “He was a smart aleck.”

A few days later, Tookie called Jean and asked her out.

“I don’t know why I called, I just lost my mind for a minute,” he joked.

Jean agreed to the date, and Tookie started to grow on her. She realized they had a lot in common, and she was impressed with his courtesy and decency to her and other people.

“It just seemed like we just belonged together,” she said.

Even though they say there weren’t many places to go to on dates then, Jean and Tookie frequently went to movies and the roller-skating rink in Noblesville.

They dated for four months until Tookie spontaneously proposed to Jean in September.

“He just said, ‘We’re gonna get married,’” Jean said. “I said, ‘We are?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’re on our way.’ I wondered what was ahead for us.”

They were married that same day on Sept. 5, 1939 at a preacher’s home in Noblesville when they were both 21.

“We were old enough to know what was right and what was wrong,” Jean said. “We weren’t a bunch of kids jumping up and doing what we weren’t supposed to do.”

Friends tied tin cans on the back of the newlyweds’ car, and after the wedding Jean and Tookie celebrated at Billy’s restaurant, where they ordered big ice cream cones.

“That was our wedding supper,” Jean said.

A month later, Tookie was discharged from the Army and the couple moved to Evansville, near Tookie’s family.

He got a job as a tool and dye maker and made 25 cents an hour, before getting a promotion where he made 75 cents an hour.

“We had a shabby little place that we rented,” Jean said. “That’s all we could afford.”

Two years after they were married, Tookie was drafted into the Army for World War II. They weren’t pleased about it, especially since they had a couple young daughters and one on the way.

“It’s just something that happened,” he said. “There wasn’t much I could do about it.”

They would write letters back and forth, but Tookie could never say where he was, or they’d censor the letter, cutting out any words that even hinted at a location.

Then the letters from Tookie stopped arriving.

“I didn’t hear from him for a long, long time and I couldn’t figure out why,” Jean said.

Tookie’s brother sent him a letter, and it was returned, saying Tookie was MIA because he was behind enemy lines.

“I thought, ‘Well, he’s gone,’” Jean said. “It was bad.”

Several weeks went by until Jean got something in the mail.

It was a Chinese newspaper from Tookie.

“That was his way of telling me where he was at,” she said.

Jean was relieved, but it was still hard. Holidays were sad without him there, and she gave birth to a daughter, who Tookie didn’t get to meet until she was two years old.

Two years went by until the couple got to see each other again, when the war was over. After such a long time, Jean was happy to be reunited, but she also had to get used to him being there again.

“It was odd,” Jean said. “It wasn’t like getting acquainted again, but his disposition changed and mine did too. You saw things differently.”

Tookie was glad to be home.

“He told me, ‘From now on, we’ll never be separated again if I can help it,’” Jean said. “And here we are.”

They lived in Evansville for a total of 10 years until Delco offered Tookie a job that paid more money. The Johnsons moved to Kokomo.

They raised their four daughters together, and Tookie built boats to go boating together as a family. Jean and Tookie enjoyed spending time as a couple during ballroom dancing lessons.

“We’d never go any place without each other,” Jean said.

For their 50th wedding anniversary, they renewed their vows during a ceremony in front of a large crowd at the Grotto.

“It was no different than when we took our vows the first time,” Jean said.

“I just think we finally made it legal,” Tookie joked.

Jean and Tookie thought that making it to 50 years of marriage was quite an accomplishment. They never fathomed they’d have 24 more anniversaries after that one.

“I thought that would be our last one,” Jean said about her 50th wedding anniversary. “I didn’t think we’d live long enough.”

Jean and Tookie have beaten the health odds. Tookie has had six stints in his heart, and Jean had a stroke that affected her throat and esophagus, resulting in her only being able to eat puréed food. She had breast cancer, and is fighting kidney cancer.

“It gets discouraging once in a while,” Jean said.

The couple leaned on each other for support during their tough times.

“Whether it’s richer or poorer, or sickness or health, you’re there,” Jean said. “There isn’t a couple going that hasn’t had their ups and downs.”

Jean and Tookie just celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary, and at 95 years old, they both agree that marriage is about give and take. They say it’s important to understand each other’s likes and dislikes.

“It brings you closer together,” Jean said.

“You have to be yourself, that’s all you can do,” Tookie said. “Even if we do fuss and fight once in a while, we make up afterward.”

The Johnsons, who are proud great-great grandparents, have tried to teach their children to not walk away from commitments and to stick it out, even if times are tough.

“To this day, when we go to bed at night, we always hug and kiss and tell each other we love each other,” Jean said. “Our love has gotten stronger.”