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A LIFE WELL-LIVED: Northfield theater icon remembered for kindness, compassion
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A directing career that includes leading 130 plays/musicals over five decades is a strong enough resume to ensure a legendary reputation in any community.

But perhaps the most impressive part of Northfielder Myrna Johnson's career, however, is that her proficiency is only one reason why many in the community are grieving her recent death.

Johnson, 92, a founding member of the Northfield Arts Guild, died of natural causes Tuesday, March 23, at the Northfield Retirement Community  Care Center .

‘She wanted people to be happy’

For Johnson’s son, Tor, the lessons his mother instilled in him transcended the theater and included her day-to-day approach to parenting and being a community member.

“She was very, very committed to the community,” he said. “And I think she had an endless supply of compassion, and she was extremely, extremely very gregarious, loved to laugh, always greeted people cheerfully, always made people feel welcome, just a kindness and her involvement in so many things.”

Tor has forged his own career as a director, serving as director of children’s ministries and performing arts at Minneapolis-based Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd.

“She was my mentor and my role model for community theater, which I find to be the highest form of theater,” he said. 

What especially stood out to the 1979 Northfield High School graduate, now 60, was that his mother undertook all her volunteer responsibilities while still leaving much time for her children.

“It was a very good balance that she struck with her husband’s performance activities and all of our activities,” he said. “And then all of her devotion to making the Arts Guild a high-quality community theater, and then eventually turned it into not just the performing arts institution that it became, but then it also became this educational place for artists. I’m very proud of how she was in on the ground floor of all of that.”

Johnson’s commitment to her family didn’t end with the births of her eight grandchildren. Even then, Tor remembers his mother for successfully keeping in touch with all of her children and knowing the happenings of her grandchildren.

Tor saw his mother’s commitment to her loved ones extend beyond those who were family. On one occasion, when he was young, Tor remembered Myrna had a friend with two children who was struggling. His mother opened their home to the then-suicidal woman, inviting her to attend services at Bethel Lutheran Church. That outreach enabled the woman to become a beloved member of the church community and a consistent choir participant.

“That’s the sort of person she was,” Tor said.

“She wanted people to be happy.”

Myrna's daughter, Sarah Johnson, echoed many of her brother's sentiments.

"As my mother, she definitely instilled a love of life in me, specifically through music, theater and giving to the community," she said. "She always encouraged me to be kind and inclusive to others, and then she directly lived this life philosophy in all the work that she did." 

A lifelong passion for the arts

Born Myrna Hanson in 1928 in Osakis, she graduated from Osakis High School in 1946. She then attended Concordia College and is a 1950 graduate of the school. A speech and English major, she sang in the school choir and was involved in many theatrical productions, paving the way for the decades-long career she later enjoyed. She also met her husband, famed longtime St. Olaf conductor Miles Johnson, while in college, and they married in 1951. Myrna taught English in Crookston, Parkers Prairie and Hawley before the young family moved to Northfield in 1957.

The couple had three children: Sarah Johnson (Stephen Bergen), Sigurd Johnson (Rooth Varland) and Tor Johnson (Margaret Berg).

Northfielder Susan Hvistendahl first met Myrna in 1964. A St. Olaf freshman at the time, she was on a European band tour under the direction of Myrna's late husband. She remembers the Johnson home on St. Olaf Avenue as a welcoming environment and for the kindness Myrna showed toward people who visited. 

When Hvistendahl returned to Northfield to live in 2004 and began working on the book she wrote with Jeff Sauve years later, "Milestones and Memories of the St. Olaf Band 1891-2018," she interviewed Johnson, who proved to have an uncanny knowledge of details.

With the onset of COVID-19 last spring, however, Hvistendahl’s visits with Johnson ended, and that separation proved challenging. The last time they were able to meet had been Feb. 20, 2020, during a book-launching event.

Above all, Hvistendahl remembers the Northfield icon for her acting talent and ability to connect with others.

“Everybody felt like she was a special friend,” Hvistendahl said.

“She was the epitome of involvement in our community.”

Myrna earns community awards

A theater director for a decade at Northfield High School, Myrna was also the organist and choir director at Bethel Lutheran Church for 23 years.

Considered an accomplished singer, Johnson also sang many times at the local hospital, Odd Fellows Nursing Home, Laura Baker Services Association, Northfield Retirement Community, Three Links Care Center, local churches and Northfield Public Schools. Her group, The Four Friends, was reportedly booked out years in advance based on their talent and stage presence.

Johnson is a two-time winner of the WCCO Good Neighbor Award. In 2010, Johnson, along with artist Ray Jacobson, were the first recipients of the Northfield Living Treasure Award. Johnson is also a recipient of the Concordia College Alumni Achievement Award.

Aug. 20, 2019 was designated as Myrna Johnson Day in Northfield  to honor her for her work in founding the Guild and other community involvement.

“All of these musical and theatrical accomplishments paled in comparison to the unending love and devotion she had for her family,” her obituary stated. “St. Olaf Band members remember Myrna as the ‘band mom’ as she accompanied the band on all of their tours in the states and abroad. Her devotion and love for her husband, Miles, the director of the band for 37 years, was evident in her never missing a single concert and always supporting Mity through good times and bad.

For Sarah, her mother didn't just direct plays: She "lived and breathed their creation."

"Our home life was structured around Mom's endless involvement at the Guild, her other creative endeavors, as well as our Dad's all-encompassing work at St. Olaf," she noted. 

‘It’s a hole in the world’

Northfielder Ruth Legvold got to know Myrna after she and her husband David moved back to Northfield in December 1976. Myrna cast Ruth in the play “Music Man,” as Marian the Librarian.

“That hooked me on theater,” Legvold said. “I loved it.”

Myrna directed all of the rest of the plays Ruth was in, and the Johnson and Legvold families forged a friendship while Ruth and Myrna would sing at retirement centers, the local hospital and other places.

“She was a very kind, open, inclusive, caring person — just amazing,” Ruth said of her friend.

Though Miles was an accomplished artist himself, Ruth remembers a general community sense that the importance of his arrival in Northfield decades ago was matched by his wife.

“I miss her,” Ruth said. “I miss doing things with her. I miss her smile. It’s a hole. It’s a hole in the world and a hole in my life.”

Chief to council: Don't renew liquor license of bar owner who defied governor's order
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Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott is recommending the City Council not renew Alibi at Froggy Bottom’s liquor license based in part on the bar owner’s refusal to comply with a statewide closure of in-person bars and restaurants last winter during a COVID-19 outbreak.

In an investigative report filed Thursday, Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott said Lisa Monet Zarza is ineligible to receive a liquor license because the license at her Lakeville establishment has been suspended for five years after she violated Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s order last December, a move Walz said was needed to control the spread of the virus. Her liquor license in Northfield expired March 31.

The Northfield City Council was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the request Tuesday before considering whether to renew the license.

There were multiple reports of Zarza continuing to operate her Lakeville establishment to in-person dining from Dec. 31-Jan. 4. On Jan. 7, Dakota County District Court issued a contempt of court order against her company, Lionheart LLC.

She has reportedly continued to sell liquor and food this year at her Lakeville establishment without licenses. However, she still has a food service license for Alibi at Froggy Bottoms.

“Zarza is not an eligible person to receive a liquor license under applicable law since she is not a person of good moral character and repute,” Elliott wrote in the report. “Further, this investigation has revealed that it is not in the public interest to issue the requested liquor license to a person who has willfully and intentionally violated state and local liquor licensing regulations, state executive orders and district court orders, and was not truthful in a sworn affidavit submitted to a reviewing court.”

Alibi at Froggy Bottoms was first licensed in 2019 in Northfield under the ownership of Heart of the Lion LLP with co-owners Zarza and Ricardo Baldazo. Baldazo has since been charged with attempting to kill two Burnsville police officers. This year’s license renewal application reportedly listed Zarza as the sole owner, but single ownership is not possible under an LLP.

Zarza reportedly told city official that she would provide documentation of sole ownership in late February but later submitted a liquor license application for Braveheart LLC listing herself as the main owner.

In her defense, Zarza said she lost 23 of 25 restaurant employees and more than $350,000 in revenue. In December, she noted that though she and her fellow business owners believed the virus is real, they felt the economic impact and psychological toll they, their employees and the broader community face are even greater threats. The emotional toll was staggering, she said at the time, adding that the shutdowns imposed by Walz and other governors have resulted in suicides and preventable deaths, social isolation and drug abuse across the country.

“The latest order creates a situation where we could lose our business,” she wrote in a December court filing. “Our opposition to these latest orders is one of self-preservation, and my belief, based in part on the advice of counsel, that the law is on our side — and Gov. Walz does not have the authority to do what he is doing.”

According to the Minnesota Reformer, the Lakeville city attorney recently informed state officials that Alibi Drinkery would not face criminal charges in connection with the issue. The Department of Public Safety’s Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division sent a report and misdemeanor prosecution request to the city of Lakeville.

“We have no evidence of any ongoing violations,” City Attorney Elliott Knetsch wrote to DPS. “We do not believe criminal prosecution is needed to obtain an additional deterrent effect or additional court control over Alibi’s owners.”

A phone call placed to Zarza’s number was not returned. Results from the Tuesday, April 6 Council meeting were not available at press time but will be included in the April 14 edition. For updated information, visit https://www.southernminn.com/northfield_news/.

Number of residents receiving at least one COVID-19 vaccination dose rising
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Forty one percent of Rice County residents have reportedly received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as state health officials look to boost vaccination numbers, a step they say is needed to combat the spread of virus variants.

By Monday, 21,848 Rice County residents received at least one vaccine dose. More than 14,250 have completed the vaccine series — 26.7%. Within the county, nearly 91% of residents 65 and older have been vaccinated, and approximately 37.4% of all residents given at least one dose.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, in Steele County, 11,665 residents — nearly 32% of the population — has received at least one dose. According to MDH, 6,537 Steele County residents have completed the process.

Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst said the vaccination rollout “is going well here.” Though she said there have been “variable quantities” of available vaccines, administrators have still focused on priority areas and are inviting employer groups — particularly manufacturing and processing companies — to be vaccinated before eventually inoculating the general public.

Through Friday, 98 deaths from the virus were reported in Rice County, with victims ranging in age from 24 to 104 years old. The average age of confirmed and probable deaths has been 80 years old. Of the 98 deaths, 64 have come in a long-term care center, 25 in private residences, and nine in prison. Through Friday in Steele County, only 12 deaths had been reported from the virus since last March.

Across the U.S., more than a dozen states, including Minnesota, opened vaccine eligibility to all adults this week amid a worrisome increase in virus cases and concerns about balancing supply and demand for the vaccines. Meanwhile, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said earlier this week that she had a recurring feeling of “impending doom” about a potential fourth wave of infections after cases in the U.S. rose 10% over the last week.

The rapid expansion has fueled concerns that the number of eager vaccine seekers will far outstrip the available supply of shots, frustrating millions of newly eligible people who have waited since late last year for a chance to get an injection. Other officials have reportedly put their faith in a promised glut of vaccines and instead turned their attention to the next challenge: Pressing as many people as possible to get the shots so the nation can achieve herd immunity at the earliest opportunity.

According to the CDC, there are three vaccines authorized and recommended for use in the U.S.: Pfizer-BioNTech, which is thought to be 95% effective at preventing laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 illness in people without evidence of previous infection; Moderna’s version, which has show 94.1% effectiveness; and one produced by Johnson & Johnson, a single-shot process shown to be 66.3% effective in clinical trials.