Kathleen R. Johnson, 83, of Ambler, a matriarch who dedicated herself to the care of her family and seized every chance to celebrate her Irish roots, died Friday, Oct. 4, of complications from a stroke at Abington Hospice at Warminster.
Born in Philadelphia, Mrs. Johnson was the daughter of Henry and Kathryn O’Neill. She grew up in Mount Airy, where she helped care for her sister, Mary Ellen, who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. She read to Mary Ellen, played with her, and helped get her ready for bed.
In 1957, when Mrs. Johnson married her high school sweetheart, George D. Johnson, and moved out of the O’Neill home, “Mary Ellen sobbed for two days,” said Margaret Driscoll, another sister. “There was great devotion between the two of them.”
A graduate of Melrose Academy High School and what is now Gwynedd Mercy University, Mrs. Johnson taught third grade at St. Francis of Assisi School in Germantown before moving with her new husband to Fort Sill, Okla., where he was an Army captain.
They returned to Mount Airy, moved to Hatboro where they raised five children, and finally settled in Ambler. For many years, she worked part-time as a secretary at Driscoll Construction Co. of Blue Bell and at Fast Forms Plus, a former printing business in Fort Washington, with her brother, Gerald.
She enjoyed the outdoors, gardening, and spending a week each summer in Ocean City, N.J. She loved to bike on the boardwalk and take photos of family gatherings.
Mrs. Johnson took part in an annual Christmas party started by Mrs. Johnson’s grandparents, Emily and Joseph O’Neill, who had come to Philadelphia from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. As the family grew, so did the party. Eventually, it had to be held at a country club.
“Wherever Mom was, there was a party atmosphere,” said her daughter, Christine Johnson-Hall.
Engaging and warm with cornflower blue eyes and a quick laugh, Mrs. Johnson was the glue that held the family together. Her family joked that she kept Hallmark in business, sending a steady stream of cards to relatives.
Her Catholic faith drove her generosity and kindness. “Kathleen always looked for who she could help next,” said Driscoll. “She didn’t think of herself.”
In 1998, when she and 64 other O’Neill family members went to Northern Ireland to trace their roots, Mrs. Johnson received a silver cape bearing the image of a fish from the family crest as a mark of her mother’s position in the family.
A high school basketball and field hockey player, Mrs. Johnson later enjoyed playing tennis and golf. She loved watching her children and grandchildren play sports, perform in high school marching bands, and dance. She was active in the La Salle College High School Mothers’ Club.
A steadfast Eagles and Phillies fan, Mrs. Johnson prepared lasagna, meatballs, and sauce for tailgating. She also had a sweet tooth, and doled out cookies, cupcakes, and candy wherever she went. “Her jelly bean stash was in the gravy boat,” her daughter said.
When Johnson-Hall delivered her third child at Abington Hospital, Mrs. Johnson popped open a cooler and gave sandwiches, pickles, chips, and sodas to the baby’s parents. “Every new baby brought her joy,” Driscoll said.
Besides her husband, sister, brother, and daughter, she is survived by children Karen Brown, Pamela Welkie, George D. Jr., and Stephen, and 14 grandchildren. Four siblings died earlier.
A visitation starting at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, will be followed by an 11:30 a.m. Funeral Mass at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, 33 Conwell Dr., Maple Glen. Burial is private.