QUINCY -- Minnie Johnson was 71 when she bought her first house -- an unassuming white ranch-style home in Quincy with blue shutters and privacy fencing -- a crowning achievement for a woman who slowly worked her way beyond the hand-to-mouth existence of her earliest days.
The 84-year-old has spent her entire life working to improve her lot in life. Each time she took a new job, she tried to ensure it was a step above the last to provide a better life for her children. Sometimes she paired two or three jobs together at once. For a time, when she was working three jobs, she slept only two and a half hours each night. When her five children were grown, and the opportunity presented itself, she became a foster parent for others.
Johnson's first job was at 11, cleaning the homes of the wealthy in Chattanooga, Tenn., where she grew up. She always worked and is still employed to this day. Orphaned early in life -- her father died in a mining accident when she was 7, and her mother died of an illness when she was 17 -- Johnson has essentially been on her own since she was a teenager.
"They used to say, 'She's only 11, but it's like she's 44,' " Johnson said of her earliest employers. "I worked every Saturday and Sunday, for $3 a day."
She already had two daughters when she got married. They would have two more children together. Johnson took a job cooking at a drive-in burger joint.
"I worked pretty hard, flipping the burgers and running the fryer at the same time," she said.
She fled Chattanooga on Thanksgiving Day in 1957, after her husband turned abusive, she said. She made the trip with her oldest daughter -- the rest of her children stayed with family friends for a bit before traveling -- using the money from a lapsed insurance policy to buy two bus tickets to Akron, Ohio.
"I got around $150 or so," she said, "I got to Ohio with $5 in my pocket, but I got out, and I didn't look back."
When she visited her brother -- they hadn't seen each other in almost 20 years -- in Quincy in 1976, she began to consider moving to Illinois, but two more years passed before she finally made the decision. Since moving to Quincy in 1978, Johnson has worked at the Woodland Home for Orphans, Quincy College, the Quincy Senior and Family Resource Center and CareLink, among other places.
"Each one of those jobs taught me something different," she said. "You learn something from your previous job, and then you try to work yourself up."
Becoming a foster parent
Johnson was in her early 60s when she decided to take in her first foster child, her great-grandson. The boy, whose mother was unable to care for him at the time, was in second grade but didn't know how to read.
"It was a learning experience for both of us," she said. "We spent time and got him to read. Every night he would read to me."
After she returned custody to the boy's mother, she realized the experience had changed her, and she wanted to see how much of a need there was for foster care in the community. The need was greater than she ever imagined.
"I wondered what you need to do for a child in foster care," Johnson said of her earliest experiences as a foster parent. "I found out you just have to love them like they're yours."
The next child she fostered, a 15-year-old girl who already had a child of her own, came to stay with Johnson in her one-bedroom apartment.
"I slept on the couch," she said. "I tried to show her what to do for the child, and she would listen and do the best she could."
Johnson bought a crib and taught the girl how to cook foods her infant could eat -- mashed potatoes, oatmeal, meatloaf and meat balls. The girl stayed with her for nine months before moving on.
"I know that I'm only there to help her and to give her some assistance," Johnson said. "It was OK when she left. I just tried to give her some guidance."
When she took in four more girls shortly after, Johnson realized it was time to upgrade to a two-bedroom apartment. She put twin beds in the bedrooms and still slept on the couch.
"They were pretty much okay, some needed a little training," she said. "One girl hadn't ever taken a shower, she'd only ever taken baths. I showed her how to take a shower. She stayed with me until she was 18, and she's a nurse now. It's amazing."
No plans to retire
Johnson has fostered 12 children. Some have left and went out on their own. Others have stayed with her as long as possible.
She adopted the last two children she fostered, because they had severe medical issues and she feared they would not be properly cared for otherwise. While fostering, she also ran a daycare out of her home. At its height, 13 children -- her foster children and those who came for daycare -- were running around her home.
"It was like cooking for Pharaoh's army," she said. "When I stopped doing the daycare, I found myself sitting around, going soft like everyone else."
Instead, she sought out the CareLink job and has begun caring for patients with Parkinson's disease. Johnson has no plans of ever retiring.
"I enjoy what I do," she said. "If I've helped someone else, then I know that I've helped myself."
Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.