Rita F. Johnson, age 80, of Cambridge died November 4, 2023 at home. A Memorial Mass will be held at 10:30 A.M. Friday, November 10th at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Isanti. A Memorial Visitation will be held from 5 – 7 P.M. Thursday, November 9th at Strike Life Tributes in Isanti and also one hour prior to the service at the church on Friday.
Rita was 21, a beautician, quite slight in stature and living in North Minneapolis. He was a year older and perhaps a bit rough around the edges after having just returned from three years of driving tanks through the mud in Europe. It was 1965 and they both wound up at a party in South Minneapolis. Fate smiled on the guy everyone called “Rocky,” and he soon learned her name was Rita. Thus began a nearly six-decades long love story worthy of Shakespeare. Rita Frances Johnson passed away at her home Saturday, Nov. 4, surrounded by family, engulfed in a deep love she spent a lifetime nurturing.
Rita’s 80 years on this earth began in Winona, Minn., where she was the second oldest of four girls born to Ray and Bernice Thilmany. She studied at the Cotter School before attending beauty school and landing a job that allowed her to showcase a remarkable ability to talk to anyone, her creative spirit and unyielding belief in the innate good in people. She moved to the Twin Cities and settled in – then she met Rocky. A couple weeks after that fateful meeting in South Minneapolis, Rita lent Rocky two-hundred dollars so he could put a payment down on a new Mustang. She had faith in him, because she had faith in humanity. The Mustang was the same car to which cans were tied and shaving cream was sprayed before the newlyweds drove into their future together. Soon, Rocky and Rita were living in Columbia Heights, and it wasn’t long before they welcomed their first child, Michelle Lynn. The cherubic, freckle-faced redhead with a big, bright smile was the apple of the young couple’s eye. When Michelle was old enough to ride a bicycle, Rita decided the family should find a place to live with more room for children to roam, so they followed Highway 65 due north to Cambridge and put down roots. An oak-speckled plot of land just off a dirt road on the outskirts of Cambridge was the perfect place to raise a family. There were trees to climb, a yard to explore, friendly neighbors and a house that would soon be filled with the sweet aroma of baked goods and the pitter-patter of six little feet. Troy was born in 1968, and Zack came along eight years later.
Rita had found her calling, her purpose and reason. She loved being a Mom and threw her entire being into making sure her kids knew they were loved and wanted for nothing. There were fishing trips to Canada, weeklong stays along the North Shore, hunting excursions, awesome homemade Halloween costumes and backyard BB-gun target practice sessions. The birthday parties she threw for her kids were the stuff of legend, too, complete with wild contests and homemade birthday cakes. Kids who were lucky enough to be there quickly learned how many crackers they could put in their mouths and still whistle. Tin cans never stood a chance against that old Daisy Red Ryder in the hands of a bunch of kids. Legend.
And boy could she ever bake. Over the years, it was frequently suggested that Rita’s Famous Lemon Bars might give Sweet Martha a run for her money at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, if only someone could convince Rita to sell them rather than give them away. There wasn’t a neighbor going through a difficult time within a 20-mile radius who hadn’t been comforted by some of Rita’s baked goods – because if someone needed help, Rita was there for them. If it wasn’t Chocolate Crinkles, it was Snicker doodles, frosted sugar cookies or “Rita’s Special K Bars,” which were really just Special K bars that tasted better because, as she explained, they were made with love. Everything Rita did, she did with love. And empathy. Rita’s kindness knew no bounds. She also understood that life could be mean. Cancer took Michelle from the family in 1986. Through sheer will, Rita held herself, and the family, together. Five days after saying goodbye to Michelle, Rita threw Troy one of her famous birthday parties, a celebration of life in the throes of a devastating death.
She was small in stature, but she was incredibly strong. She was also a woman of her word.
Before Michelle passed away, she asked her Mom to help other kids with cancer. As was her way, Rita grabbed the bull by the horns and led a relentless effort to collect and donate hundreds of teddy bears to children fighting cancer. The project made headlines in the Twin Cities media, but Rita never sought the spotlight. She was much more comfortable behind the scenes.
Rita fancied herself the family historian, toting a camera with her wherever she went and amassing an impressive collection of wonderful, if slightly askew, photographs, commemorating milestones small and large as the boys grew up. In time, Troy and Zack went off to college, and Rita was still there for them. They’d come home on weekends, hungry, with empty gas tanks, lugging bundles of dirty clothes. They always left with full bellies, gas tanks and hearts. Clean laundry, too, thanks to their Mom.
Taking care of her family mattered most to Rita, and she showed her children how to carry on, power through and keep smiling. Rita took up crocheting and freely gave away her crafts. She kept baking and became a kind of de-facto Mom for her kids’ teammates. She was at all of Troy’s football games and never missed one of Zach’s wrestling matches. Her boundless energy and persistent positivity knew no bounds. To Troy and Zack, she was Mom. To their friends and teammates she was “Mom.” Never at a loss for words, Rita made fast friends and was treasured by those fortunate enough to meet her. Yet, somehow, she still managed to let her actions do the talking. Kids who won got hugs and encouraging words. Kids who lost got hugs and encouraging words. Everyone was a winner in her book. She loved unconditionally, listened intently, treated everyone with respect and always saw the best in people. Rita gave so much to so many, but she saved the best for her boys, instilling in them a dogged work ethic, empathy and a strong sense of right and wrong. She and Rocky showed them how to be good, decent people. And great parents!
Rita loved being a Grandma to Mackenzie, Tyler, Spencer and Mia. She enjoyed watching her great grandkids, Zoe and Quinn grow up. She doted on her grandkids, driving more than an hour each way three times a week to babysit. There wasn’t a park to which she wouldn’t walk, a lemon bar she wouldn’t bake, a drive she wouldn’t make for her grandkids, kids and their families.
Rita like to roam around the state. When she wasn’t caring for her grandkids, she and Rocky were off exploring – Jazz Fest in Duluth, was a favorite, until her body betrayed her and she was no longer able to leave her beloved homestead.
Rita passed away in the home where she raised a fine family, surrounded by a deep love she spent a lifetime nurturing. It’s a love that has borne fruit in the form of a tight-knit family. It is an enduring love, a love that will last forever.
Rita is survived by her husband, Donald (Rocky) Johnson, sons, Troy (Amy) Johnson, Zack (Sunny) Johnson, four wonderful grandchildren, two great grandkids, two sisters and an entire community of people who will forever remember her kindness, her energy, her positivity and her selflessness.