One-woman band, Kathy Johnson, takes a bow

Accordion pro performed right up till the end

Cliff Buchan
Staff Writer

Forest Lake has lost its “First Lady” of music.

Kathy Johnson, a St. Paul native who made Forest Lake her second home as a base for a long life marked by music and entertaining, has died. Johnson was 89 when she passed away on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at Birchwood Arbors, an assisted living facility where she had resided the past four years.

Johnson’s life was filled with music, an accordion and the ability to entertain, said her daughter, Nancy Owzarek. Owzarek said her mother had experienced a life-threatening illness two years ago but rebounded well. She had entertained twice in the week before falling ill early last week, Owzarek said.


“She was out at a concert on Saturday (Nov. 10) at the Church of Christ,” her daughter said. “She was in good spirits.” And on Wednesday, Nov. 7, she played at a gathering of residents at Birchwood Health Care Center where she was a regular volunteer, her daughter said.

“That was her ministry,” Owzarek said of her time with Birchwood residents.

A Life of Music 

Kathy Johnson was born on March 23, 1923 in St. Paul, the youngest of three children of Otto and Harriet Kohls. She had two older brothers, Roy and Bill Kohls.

Owzarek said her grandparents recognized the musical talent of their daughter at an early age and encouraged her to pursue music. By the time her mother was 11 or 12 she had her first accordion and quickly become accomplished with the instrument and also played the piano, Owzarek said.

“She had a natural side for music,” Owzarek said. “She could play by ear.”

As a teen, Johnson grew up listening to the KSTP Sunset Valley Barn Dance, a live radio show that aired from destinations in the five-state region. “It was her dream to be on the show one time,” Owzarek said.

With the help of a brother, she went to a Barn Dance audition. “She was a big hit and was hired to join the company,” her daughter said. “She had her own little spot in the show.”

For the next 10 years Johnson traveled with the Barn Dance crew throughout the Upper Midwest, playing weekend gigs in Duluth, Milwaukee, Sioux Falls, Des Moines and other towns. She continued to work for KSTP while finishing Wilson High School and Brown Business College. She worked as a telephone switchboard operator after graduating from Brown College.

She left the Barn Dance in 1949, the same year that she married Jim Johnson, a Forest Lake native. For the next 10 years she pursued a solo career as a “strolling accordionist,” her daughter said. She performed at a number of hotels in Minneapolis and St. Paul and also worked private parties for businesses and individuals where she would lead sing-alongs..

As shown by this photo from 1979, the sight of Kathy Johnson playing an accordion was a common one in Forest Lake over several decades. (File photo)

Throughout her career it was the accordion for Johnson. They were “made for each other,” her daughter said. Owzarek described the instrument as a forerunner to an electronic keyboard that enables an artist to offer many different sounds. “It was like an entire band that you could carry around with you,” Owzarek said. “She was a one-woman band.”

Nancy Owzarek has carried on the family music tradition. She was active on stage at Forest Lake High School where she graduated in 1978. For the past 11 years she has been the theatre director at Eagan High School where she teaches English.

Life in FL

Johnson grew up in St. Paul but spent her summers in Forest Lake. Her parents owned a cottage on the bay and the lake town was special to the family, Owzarek said.

It was in Forest Lake where she met her husband to be. Kathy Kohls and Jim Johnson were married on June 3, 1949.

The couple settled in St. Paul, but in 1973 moved to Forest Lake. The family cabin was removed and a home built.

It didn’t take Kathy Johnson long to become involved in Forest Lake life. She was hired in 1974 to work in the activities department at Birchwood Health Care Center. She spent 22 years there as an employee and remained a regular volunteer after her retirement in 1996.

Johnson could be found almost anywhere where an accordion player was in demand. She was a regular volunteer at Whispering Pines, a senior complex in Forest Lake. Johnson was a volunteer for many years with the Meals of Wheels and congregate dining programs in Forest Lake.

She was also active at Grace Alliance Church in Forest Lake. Faith and music played a big part in Johnson’s life, Owzarek said.

“Her faith was the most important part of her life,” her daughter said. She shared that faith through her uplifting and joyful music, Owzarek said.

Memorial Details

A celebration of life service was Saturday, Nov. 17 at Grace Alliance Church in Forest Lake. A private family interment will take place at Scandinavian Cemetery, Forest Lake.

She is survived by two children, Nancy (Andy) Owzarek of Farmington and Jim (Kathy) Johnson of Onamia; four grandchildren, Livia, Alice, Aaron and Emily; other relatives and many friends.

She was preceded in death by her husband of 49 years, Jim, in 1998; two brothers and her parents.

Memorials are preferred to Smile Train and Young Life. They may be sent in care of Grace Alliance Church, 432 SE 11th Ave., Forest Lake, MN 55025.