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Rose Johnson: A voice of reason who helped weather storms

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Bettina Potter Rose Johnson bench

Bettina Potter, a close friend of former Big Lake City Council member Rose Johnson, speaks to a small gathering at the Saturday, Oct. 24 dedication of a bench and serviceberry tree in Lakeside Park in Big Lake. Johnson, who died unexpectedly on July 23, left her mark on the city of Big Lake through her service to the public and dedication to local youth and education.


Rose Johnson loved children, lakes, and her home town of Big Lake.

She thought long and hard about the world around her and how she could make it a better place.

That often came with deep personal reflection or meaningful conversation with a close and trusted circle of friends and confidants.

Johnson died unexpectedly on July 23, 2020. Her death has now paved the way for others to converse and reflect - as she often did- at one of her most cherished places- along the shore of Big Lake.

On Saturday, Oct. 24, friends and family of Rose Johnson dedicated a memorial bench in Johnson’s honor in Big Lake’s Lakeside Park. Behind the bench is a serviceberry tree that will bloom with beautiful white flowers in the spring and stand out in the fall under the canopy of surrounding old-growth trees with its glowing red leaves.

“It’s the perfect memorial,” said Scott Zettervall, who served on the Big Lake City Council with Johnson and who was a trusted friend.

“It’s a place for conversation, reflection and relaxation,” Zettervall said during an Oct. 24 dedication of the bench that looks out over the waters of Big Lake. 

Close friend Bettina Potter, who along with Zettervall worked to make the bench dedication a reality, gave a nod to the belief that Rose Johnson will always be a part of Big Lake.

“I encourage you to come down here and visit with her,” Potter told dedication attendees.

In Big Lake, not only was Rose Johnson a dedicated community leader who served a year and a half on the Big Lake City Council. She was a representative on the Big Lake Economic Development Authority, and the city’s personnel and road maintenance committees, she was a member of the Big Lake Community Lake Association and the Big Lake School District’s Community Education Advisory Board. She worked closely with The WAVE Youth Center in Big Lake and was a volunteer cherished by the Center’s youth.

But Rose Johnson’s story began long before moving to a house overlooking Big Lake in 2006.

Rose Johnson was raised in Rushmore, Minnesota, a small town west of Worthington. 

She was the third child in a family with eight children and was raised in a residence that had no running water. All her siblings names started with the letter “R”.

Family members say Rose Johnson was a known prankster. She relished in setting up her brothers to get in trouble - like the time she talked them into jumping on the carcass of a cow like a trampoline. She was also a snake-charmer of sorts as a child, and had an uncanny ability to bring snakes out of the woods, family members recall.

But Rose Johnson had her sights set on things much bigger than the small-town living of Rushmore, which in 2018 had a population of just 338 people.

She enrolled in law school at the University of Minnesota. Her leadership skills shone while at the U of M. On January 7, 1982, University Regent Mary T. Schertler introduced Johnson as the newest student representative to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. U of M President C. Peter Magrath noted in that meeting that Johnson had also been elected as chairman of the University’s student representatives. That would later lead to Johnson being a class speaker at her U of M graduation.

Johnson married Andy Jordahl, who she met while in college. They had 42 years together. Johnson’s career took her to New Jersey, where she worked as a labor relations attorney for ATT. She later moved to Marin County, California north of San Francisco where she continued her career with ATT. They lived in what Andy called paradise.

Andy Jordahl says he was reluctant to have children, but at age 30, his wife Rose got “the bug.”

“But her career was too busy and my career was too busy,” Jordahl recalled during the Oct. 24 bench dedication. “I talked her out of it.”

When Johnson was 40, she told her husband she was going to have a child “with or without” him, Jordahl said.

“And she would have,” he laughed.

But having children was met with complications. After many years of trying to have children Rose and Andy essentially gave up. But out the blue the couple became pregnant with twins. The pregnancy was extremely difficult and involved many decisions along the way that required tons of fortitude. Twins Eric and Sarah were born in 2000.

It was through the process of trying to have children- and then having children- that changed the lives of many women across the country.

Rose had become a member of an online support group in the early days of the Internet comprised of women having fertility issues. The group became very close even though most of the approximate 50 members has never met. 

Rose became to many the glue that held the group together. She became a trusted voice of advice and reason for women going through some of the most difficult times in their lives. The relationships made in the group known as the “Beta Sisters” have been strong for more than 20 years.

“We raised our kids together, shared recipes, and sometimes we even ranted about our husbands,” said Maryla Hall Blanco, a member of the group.

For many of the women of the group, they shared the same milestones. For those who, like Rose Johnson, were blessed to have children, they had children about the same age, said Karen Bernstein of Houston, Texas, a close friend from the group.

“She was a real trusted friend to who I could tell anything,” Bernstein said.

Rose was a woman who was generous with her time and had a wealth of helpful and constructive advice, she said.

So much so, that Beta Sister Stacy Oosterink called Rose Johnson the group’s voice of reason.

“She was our Jiminy Cricket,” Oosterink said of the talking cricket from Pinocchio fame who served as the “voice of reason” for the wooden puppet who turned into a boy.

No matter how emotional a discussion became, Rose Johnson was never anything less than empathetic, Oosterink said.

“She had an uncanny amount of empathy and logic in just the right measure,” she said.

There was not a mean bone in that woman’s body, Oosterink added. 

Rose also had a great sense of self-depreciating humor, Oosterink said. That’s a trait many of Rose Johnson’s friends point out.

She had the ability to leave all situations- even those that were confrontational- with either a smile or a laugh.

Rose Johnson also had an uncanny ability to help her friends in need with the creation of plans of action. 

“She watched the storm. She understood the storm. She helped fix the storm,” Oosterink said.

She was able to feel for you and help you with a plan, she said.

“That’s a gift,” Oosterink said.

Though Rose Johnson is now gone, many of the support group still live by the mantra, “What would Rose do,” she said.

The voice of Rose Johnson was one that resonated with every member of the group, said Maryla Hall Blanco of Norman, Oklahoma, another close friend of Rose Johnson from the Beta Sisters group.

“I was fortunate to know Rose for 20 years,” she said.

The lives of the women in the support group were very intertwined as they found their different paths to motherhood,” Blanco said.

“And Rose was a constant for them, like a neighbor or a sibling,” she said.

Blanco says Rose Johnson, first and foremost, was her “sister.” But Johnson was also Blanco’s most trusted council.

“If the bottom of the world was going to fall out tomorrow, I knew we’d all be OK because Rose was there to steer us in the right direction,” Blanco said.

After giving birth to her twins Eric and Sarah, Andy Jordahl became a stay-at-home dad for six years while Rose Johnson finished her career with ATT, he said at the Oct. 24 bench dedication.

It was during that time that a man once hesitant to have children experienced, through the blessing of the twins,the gift of unconditional love. It was a gift he shared with his wife Rose.

In 2006, Rose Johnson and Andy Jordahl moved their family back to their home state of Minnesota in search of better public education for their children. That’s when they purchased their home in Big Lake. 

But two years later, the couple bought a second home in Blaine and relocated there in order to meet the educational needs of the children. When the twins graduated in 2018 the Blaine house was sold. Rose and Andy relocated permanently to Big Lake.

Rose Johnson was very wise and very community driven. It was that drive that led to Johnson first getting involved in local politics.

Former Big Lake Mayor Raeanne Danielowski, who now serves on the Sherburne County Board, remembers Johnson answering a call to join the Big Lake Economic Development Association shortly after permanently relocating to Big Lake.

“What she brought to that board was simply amazing,” Danielowski said. Danielowski said she doesn’t have words for the intelligence and passion for Big Lake that Johnson brought to the BLEDA.

Danielowski encouraged Johnson to run for city council in the November 2018 election. 

“I was so happy she decided to do that,” Danielowski said.

She ran and finished third behind current Mayor Mike Wallen and Councilmember Paul Knier. 

Johnson was eventually appointed to the Big Lake City Council in early 2019 when Danielowski took a position on the Sherburne County Board.

“She stepped into that realm and did exactly what I thought she would do. She embraced our community. That was only in two short years- and look what she accomplished,” Danielowski said.

“She touched the hearts of this community, the hearts of our council and staff, and anyone who interacted with her,” she said. 

Rose Johnson pushed to make the Big Lake community better and strived to leave it better than she found it.” Danielowski said.

“She accomplished that,” she said.

Molly Schroeder, founder and president of The WAVE Youth Center in Big Lake, first met Rose Johnson at community forums held prior to the opening of the center in early 2020.

“She asked lots of questions,” Schroeder recalled. She became one of the center’s biggest supporters.

Johnson donated to the center, and was one of the first to volunteer to work with the youth when The WAVE opened, Schroeder recalled.

In addition to volunteering with the youth, Johnson used her vast corporate and government expertise to write templates used in applying for grants, create project summaries, write grants and do research on behalf of the center. 

“It was great to know her in that capacity,” Schroeder said.

And while Schroeder says Johnson was a great community advocate for The WAVE and shared information about the center whenever she could, it was the work with the youth where she really shined.

“The kids enjoyed playing games with Rose, and it led to some fun and great conversations,” Schroeder said.

It was particularly fun to see the banter between Johnson and some youth during heated games of Risk, she said.

In August, members of the Beta Sisters support group teamed with The WAVE Youth Center to place a game table in the center in Johnson’s honor.

Scott Zettervall first met Rose Johnson when he was appointed to the Big Lake City Council in the summer of 2019. Zettervall and Johnson sat next to each other on the dais and became close allies over not only city council business, but through The WAVE Youth Center and heartfelt discussions over raising children and education.

“Rose was passionate in her support of children and passionate about education, as well,” Zettervall said. 

Johnson also loved Big Lake and Lake Mitchell and worried about protecting them from invasive species, he said.

But it was Johnson’s professionalism on the city council that Zettervall might have admired most.

“She was always so prepared and that made me want to be more informed and better prepared as a councilmember,” Zettervall said. 

Johnson was a woman who was interested in the betterment of the city of Big Lake, even when ideas or actions were not popular. She was a firm believer, too, that there was no place for politics in local government or what the city council was charged to do, Zettervall said.

“She was a mentor and role model,” said Zettervall, who added that Johnson had a keen knack for understanding the view of “the other side,” which made her opinions and decisions very thoughtful.

Zettervall says he will remember Rose Johnson for the love she had for her children, her care for the youth, her love of the lakes and her desire to protect them, her love of her home, Big Lake.

“My favorite memories of Rose will be the long conversations we had about all of these things,” Zettervall said.

Big Lake Mayor Mike Wallen also had many discussions with Rose Johnson during her time serving on the city council and the EDA.

“She was someone who was extremely intelligent. Her intelligence really shined through the whole time I knew her,” Wallen said.

Wallen admits that he and Johnson were 180 degrees apart from a political standpoint, and because of that difference in ideology, they didn’t always see eye-to-eye.

“But when it came to the City, we were hand-in-hand. I had complete and utter trust in her,” said Wallen, who enjoyed the opportunities to listen and learn from Johnson.

And because of her career as a corporate attorney for one of the nation’s largest companies, she brought a great perspective to the Big Lake City Council and numerous city committees.

“We received a lot of great, professional advise for free,” Wallen noted.

Johnson was a runner and walker who lived in a house overlooking Lake Mitchell, which also resulted in her being a big advocate for city parks and trails, Wallen said.

Wallen may have been speaking for most of the residents of Big Lake when he said, “I was blessed to have a three-year relationship and many experiences with Rose.”

Wallen has been part of city government for more then 10 years, and noted that he has served with many tremendously great councilmembers.

Rose Johnson sits at the top of that list, he said.

“I will miss her every day and think about her every day,” Wallen said. 

Every time I cast a vote, she will be right there with me,” he said.

Reach Jeff Hage at



Jeff Hage is the managing editor of the Monticello Times. He majored in journalism at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire.

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