Friendly faces in familiar places: Irene Johnson

Retired Alexandria teacher finds enjoyment in companionship.

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Irene Johnson, 90, reclines in her living room and holds her cat, Mickey. The cat will lay on her lap while she reads her morning devotions. (Jasmine Johnson / Echo Press)

Two sets of four dings echo through the house, as Mickey the cat rings a contraption that signals the doorbell.

Irene Johnson, 90, said her neighbor brought over the cat because it seemed like a necessity to have a feline on the farm.

“My cat takes care of me,” Johnson said, pointing over her shoulder. “She’s very comforting.”

Every morning, Johnson lays on her living room couch, pulls up a blanket, prompts Mickey to come sit on her lap and reads through a devotional book and list of people to pray for.

One day when she was feeling off, Johnson looked out the window of her Alexandria home and noticed a particular detail on the tree trunk, framed in a narrow portion of the window. Two twigs formed the shape of a cross.


“Oh that’s right, I’m not alone,” she said.

Finding fun

Johnson’s idea of fun has changed a bit since her childhood years. Living on a farm with seven siblings five miles away from town meant creating their own adventures.

The boys and girls each built a tent out of twigs and logs they found in the woods. Johnson’s mother would question where the eggs were disappearing to, when it was the siblings sneaking them out to their forest huts to fry up.

They strung a wire between two trees and had one up above so they could walk across and balance by hanging onto the top one.

“We did dangerous things,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of fun.”

Now, Johnson said she enjoys reading or watching “Wheel of Fortune,” the Rachael Ray cooking show and “Jeopardy.”

“I get one question answered in the whole week probably, but I just like to watch it,” she said. “Once in a while, I say, ‘Hey, I beat you!’”


Pursuing her passion

Another pastime Johnson would engage in with her sisters was playing school. They would set drawers upside down and lean their dolls against the side, so they could pretend to teach to their inanimate toys.

“I guess that shows I was always going to be a teacher,” Johnson said.

She studied education, attending Bethel University for a year before transferring to Bemidji State because two of her siblings were also college students there at the time.

She taught sixth grade throughout her whole career and landed her first teaching job in Staples, Minn. Johnson decided to branch out and go to bigger school systems, so she taught at two more schools before reevaluating with her sister.

“Let’s look for something more adventurous,” Johnson said, remembering an exchange with her sister.

She said she would take the first job offer that came her way. So, when there was an opening in Alexandria, she said, “Well, let’s try it.”

Johnson taught sixth grade in Alexandria for the remainder of her teaching years and then served as her church’s secretary before retiring.

Bonding over pie

While balancing her schedule in retirement, Johnson stays as social and involved as possible. Thinking ahead about her week, she stretched out four of her fingers as she recounted her plans: Host her son, meet for a Bible study group, go to Travelers Inn with a group of friends and attend a brunch get-together.


“It does help to get out, I make sure that I do, otherwise you can kinda feel sorry for yourself,” she said.

The group of women she visits regularly for coffee and conversation slowly formed because of mutual friends being added in, and Johnson estimated about eight individuals come to each gathering.

On one occasion, she arrived early and saved the table before anyone else came. Right next to her, four other women were sitting and chatting.

“How’s the pie?” Johnson leaned over and asked them.

“C’mon, c’mon up here,” they replied, so Johnson scooted in next to them.

The group of strangers handed her a knife and spoon, letting her try both types of pie they had ordered. Before they left, they asked for her camera so they could take a group photo with Johnson.

“Never saw them before,” she said with a chuckle. “I like people.”

This is a part of "Friendly faces in familiar places," an occasional series telling the stories of the unique people that make up the Douglas County community through writing, photo and video. To nominate an individual to profile for this series, email Jasmine at


Jasmine Johnson joined the Echo Press staff in May 2020 as a general assignment reporter. She grew up in Becker, Minn., and later studied journalism and graphic design at Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minn.
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