Jessie Lee Johnson, 88, who was featured in an article in the Bowling Green Times on Dec. 4, 2019, died in Tulsa, OK, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, surrounded by relatives and friends. At a future date, Lee’s life will be celebrated in Bowling Green. Her ashes will be buried in a cemetery in Clarksville, Mo., close to the body of her biological mother Anna.
Lee was born in Bowling Green, Mo., Feb. 15,1933, to Anna Paxton Higginbotham Johnson and Olie Newton Johnson. The doctor was absent-minded at Lee’s birth and wrote 1932—the year prior—on her birth certificate (while also misspelling Olie’s name as Ola). Lee, who would go on to travel the world, encountered challenges with the doctor’s mistake for the rest of her life when filing for passports and legal documents.
Lee was the youngest of five Johnson siblings; Martha Ann (Branson), David Newton Johnson, Mary Pearl (Hays), Beulah “Judy” Paxton (Liddicoat), who all died earlier. When Lee was only 18-months old, her mother became so gravely ill she could no longer care for her children and the siblings were separated from one another for two years. Mary and Judy (who were twins) went to California to live with their lighthouse-keeper uncle, Morton, and his wife, Pearle (from Bowling Green). Martha and David remained in Bowling Green until Martha joined the WAVES and David left for the Navy.
Meanwhile, Lee was taken in by her aunt Jessie Maud and uncle Rufus Higginbotham who lived in Wichita, Kan. The Higginbothams had two young adult sons, James and Bill, who Lee would come to consider her brothers. James would go on to graduate from Tulane Medical School and win the Silver Star, while Bill would graduate from the journalism school at University of Missouri and serve as a war correspondent for the London Times. Remarkably, the two brothers met on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day. Their lives, academic achievements and intellectual curiosity, had a profound impact on Lee’s interests and upbringing.
Following Rufus’s death, aunt Maud brought Lee back to Bowling Green to complete her education and to assist in raising Lee’s sisters Mary and Judy, back from California. Lee became best friends with Shirley Balance who also lived on 13th Street. The two girls bonded over a shared double desk and formed what would become a life-long friendship. Lee also grew close to her uncle Arthur Kleppisch, the husband of her paternal aunt Beulah. Arthur owned the local Missouri Hatchery, one of Bowling Green’s outstanding businesses, while Beulah was an active member of the DAR and the local Baptist church.
Lee and her sisters Mary and Judy experienced a tornado that devastated their home and street, but also happy times making mud pies, roller skating, playing with paper dolls, spending time with their beloved cousin, Dodie (Dora Wells Harness, mother of Cecil Wells Harness), and her sisters, as well as time spent at Grandmother Higginbotham’s farm house with the chickens. Eventually, Mary and Judy left Bowling Green to enter St. Luke’s School of Nursing to be part of the final class of WWII Cadet Nurses in 1945 when Lee was still a pre-teen.
Lee was an outstanding student and a talented musician. She played horn in the Bowling Green High School band, classical piano, and the organ for various ceremonies and services. She graduated from Bowling Green High School in 1951 as valedictorian. Sadly, Maud Higginbotham, who had instilled within Lee a strong work ethic, passed away before Lee was named valedictorian. Lee was devastated by the loss of Maud whom she considered to be her mother and the most important woman in her life.
Following high school graduation, Lee moved to Maryland to attend the University of Maryland, tuition-free as a music major. During the next four years, Lee focused on her studies, practicing her instrument and working part-time while living with her cousin Bill, a White House correspondent, and his wife, Eunice. She enjoyed dinners and lively conversations every night in the Higginbotham home, and she considered Bill and Eunice’s two boys, Jim and Tom, to be her younger brothers, because they all lived together as one family during that time.
Because of Bill’s press credentials and know-how in D.C., Lee was able to sit in on the hearings for the case of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the swearing in of F.D.R. Jr., several sessions of the McCarthy hearings, Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, and many other important moments in American history.
After college, Lee became a music teacher in Baltimore and later in suburban New Jersey. Over the course of five years, she saved up enough money to attend her dream school, Columbia University in New York City, and obtain a master’s in library science. She was always determined to get the best education she could, even if it took her several extra years to get there.
After graduate school, Lee was hired to work at the New York Public Library, the nation’s largest public library system. She spent the next 40 years at the reference desk in the Donnell Library Building at 20 W. 53rd Street—from June 5, 1961, until her retirement on June 5, 2001.
During her tenure as a New York reference librarian, Lee met a “who’s who” of authors, actors, entertainers, and business leaders. Of the over 1 million people who visited the Donnell branch each year, over half stopped to speak with the reference librarian, meaning that Lee Johnson would have interacted with 20 million New Yorkers over the course of her career. Among those library-goers, Lee had many stories of encounters with famous people, who would usually come to the library on quiet Saturday mornings when they could linger for hours undisturbed. Some of her beloved colleagues at Donnell included Edward Nelson, Robert Powers, and Burt Abelson.
Lee was an avid tennis player and adored the Metropolitan Opera, attending classical musical performances, Broadway shows, concerts, and Shakespeare programs with her companion, Abe, various girlfriends and her three sisters and their families whenever they would visit New York. Despite being separated as children and losing their brother, David, during middle age, the sisters, Martha, Mary, Judy, and Lee remained incredibly close throughout their lives. They shared trips, reunions and vacations together as well as hundreds of letters and cards. They made a point to visit each other, Bowling Green, their mother’s beloved Louisville Christian Church, and their favorite cousin, Dodie, as much as possible.
At home in New York, Lee could frequently be seen biking through Central Park and taking the subway, fearless and happy, in the city that she loved. She resided in the same tiny rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side for over 40 years, near to where Walter Conkrite lived, who was a close friend and colleague of her cousin Bill.
Lee never married or had children, but she was close to her five nieces and nephews and would entertain them, as well as their children, on adventures to the top of the Empire State Building, the Twin Towers, on campus visits to Columbia, and all over the city on siteseeing tours. The kids got a kick out of their Aunt Lee politely correcting tour guides, delighting in the city’s architecture, and navigating the transit system with vivre. Lee loved to travel and wrote extensive logs of her international and domestic excursions, usually with Road Scholar. She spread her love of music, the arts, and literature to all those who knew her, especially her nieces, nephews, grand nieces, and grand nephews.
In her final years, Lee’s nephew Bruce and niece Susan assisted in moving Lee from her New York apartment to Inverness Village in Tulsa, OK. In Tulsa, she had a beautiful apartment where she could enjoy playing the piano and live out her final years strolling the grounds and making new friends. After a relatively brief battle with cancer, she passed away peacefully at home in Inverness.
She is survived by her nieces and nephews: Bruce Branson (Colorado), Susan Leonard (Thad, Tulsa, OK), Jane Hays (David Downey, Champaign, IL), Nancy Hays Heffernan (Sean, Chicago, IL), and Edward Parker Hays, Jr., (Laura, Charlotte, NC). She is also survived by many grand nieces and nephews: Scott Branson, Spencer Branson, Seth Leonard, Abby Leonard Cavness, Whitney Leonard, Rachel Henneman Beaupre’, Laura Henneman French, Michael Henneman Jr., Mary, Edward, Matthew and Caroline Heffernan, Lane Hays Klansek, Edward Parker Hays III, and Evelyn and Lydia Hays as well as cousin Cecil Wells Harness (Lorraine, New Hartford, MO).
Donations can be made to the Bowling Green High Music and Booster Club in Jessie Lee Johnson's name.