Darien woman to turn 100, reflects on life

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

Monday, June 10, will be a very big day for Darien resident Eileen Johnson. On that day, she’ll become a centenarian.
Johnson was born in 1919, the same year Woodrow Wilson was president, women received the right to vote, the pop-up toaster was invented, and gas cost .25 cents a gallon.
To celebrate Johnson’s milestone birthday, her family and friends will come to Maplewood at Darien, an assisted living and memory care facility where she has resided since 2014, and where she currently holds the title of the oldest of 64 residents. There will also be a separate party with fellow residents and staff members in the sunroom. Banners, balloons, cake and even a crown will be part of Johnson’s special day.
The Darien Times visited Maplewood at Darien to speak to Johnson, a retired New Canaan High School math teacher and mother of four, grandmother of four, and great-grandmother of two. Johnson’s son Michael, 69, provided additional information for the story.

The early years
Eileen Hellwig Johnson grew up in Elmhurst, N.Y. She was a tomboy and played a lot of sports.
“I played hockey in the street with the boys,” said Johnson, who has short, white hair and was wearing a floral jacket, red blouse, gold necklace — and a large smile.
Her parents spoke German, and she learned to speak German as well. She also knows Latin.
According to her son Michael, Eileen’s parents were both musicians. “My grandmother played piano and my grandfather played violin, and they would often play duets together,” he said.
“She told us about how, when she was young, she and her older sister Muriel would listen to their parents play while they were lying in bed at night,” said Michael Johnson, a Manhattan resident.
At Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Johnson was class secretary. She later graduated from from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and from Columbia University Teachers College in Manhattan. She became a math teacher.
In 1945, she married Lewis Johnson, who worked as an electrical engineer.
Prior to moving to Darien, Eileen also lived in Portland, Ore. She has lived in Darien since 1959.
After her husband passed away, she reunited with her high school sweetheart. They were together until his death.
At Maplewood, Johnson began another relationship with R. Donald Brown, a fellow resident. She had known him and his family from her church, The First Congregational Church of Darien. They were together until Brown’s death in January.

Keeping busy
Johnson has had a wide variety of interests. “I like to keep busy,” she said.
She knitted, cooked and gardened. “My garden had all kinds of flowers,” she said.
She also worked with mosaics. “She made several beautiful glass mosaic pieces from pieces of colored glass and grout,” Michael Johnson said.
“To be a good teacher, you need to not only know the subject but also know how to teach it,” Michael Johnson said. “My mother was a very patient and caring teacher. She had a special fondness for kids who needed extra help.”
His mother tutored him as well. “She saved me a number of times when I was growing up. I would sit with her and she would go through the [equations] in a way that I could understand what was going in,” he said. “She was an excellent communicator and was always able to spot where she was losing me.”
He said his mother has also always been very understanding.
“I’d get into trouble sometimes, and she didn’t make it into an enormous issue. It was about learning from our mistakes,” he said. “As a teacher, she learned early on that she had to be that way in order to be able to reach kids that she may not otherwise been able to reach.”
He added that his mother has always been very open-minded.

“She has empathy, which she has passed down to all her children. She was always willing to listen and consider alternative opinions,” he said. “She wasn’t locked in. She was very open to new ideas and new people, and that’s made her life much easier.”

Life at Maplewood
These days, Johnson is very busy with many activities at Maplewood.
Her daily schedule includes making crafts, taking exercise classes, playing trivia games, and socializing.
She also participates in art therapy classes and goes out for lunch and on trips with fellow Maplewood residents including fishing at Rowayton Elementary School’s pond and Broadway shows at the Westchester Broadway Theatre.
A long life
Johnson shared some tips on living a long life, one of which is traveling.
“I have traveled around the world,” Eileen Johnson said.
“When all of the kids left home, my parents started vigorously traveling,” Michael Johnson said. “They went on trips to different countries in Europe including Scandinavia, France, and Italy.”
“It was like a bucket list,” he said. “They wanted to do extensive traveling.”
Another key to a long life is socializing, according to Eileen Johnson.
For years, she got together very often with about two dozen couples from the First Congregational Church of Darien.
“She still sees them and gets visited by the ministers there,” her son said. “My dad was a deacon there, that was their home base.”
Johnson is still socializing, according to the staff at Maplewood. She’s always surrounded by people and interested in taking part in whatever they’re doing. On Johnson’s big day, many of the residents — and staff members — will be with their friend to celebrate her triple-digit birthday bash.