Sew Far, Sew Good
Verdenal Hoag Johnson ’45 weaves threads of optimism and joy throughout her life
Verdi Johnson ’45’s mother used to call her “the cat who walks alone”—perhaps the earliest testament to her resilience and self-sufficiency. At 89, it’s a euphemism she still identifies with—maintaining as many activities as possible: attending Quaker meetings, quilting, researching genealogy, and reading (a lot).
“There are too many things I want to do, so I just do them,” Verdi says, seated regally amid her vibrant quilting projects in various stages of completion. She and husband Edward ’46—“my Edward,” as she calls him—are anything but your typical “oldsters” (another Verdi aphorism). Ten years ago, the pair relocated from their longtime Madison, N.J., home to Dover, N.H., where they live on a cul-du-sac across the street from their youngest daughter, remaining as independent as possible. The move brought with it Verdi’s latter-day conversion to the Quaker faith.
“One day, I got a physical nudge—it felt like an elbow to my side—that said, ‘Go to meeting, stupid.’ I guess that was God. Who else could it have been?” Verdi says, still in awe of the experience. “So I started going to meeting, and I’ve been very happy there.” (Meanwhile Edward, 91, still attends the Episcopal church in Portsmouth, N.H.—baking brownies every Thursday for a church lunch for the disadvantaged in the community.)
Perhaps the best part of retirement, according to Verdi, is all the time she spends reading. There’s The New York Times and what she calls the “awful” local newspaper; she has at least two books going at any given time.
Verdi also spends a couple hours daily in her quilting studio—standing over her cutting table and scissoring fabric squares, carefully charting out new designs on graph paper, or hunching in concentration over her sewing machine. Although Verdi made her first quilt in 1942, it wasn’t until she retired that she rekindled the pastime that has helped mentally and spiritually sustain her.
“I wouldn’t mind a bit if I died today, but I don’t see death as a goal,” she says. “That’s why I make my quilts—they’ve saved me. They give me an objective for each day.”
Her quilts have had a wide array of beneficiaries, from family members to babies born HIV-positive and children from her former New Jersey community who lost fathers on 9/11. Swarthmore has also been remembered: an oversized quilt bearing her name hangs in the Educational Studies Department in Pearson Hall.
For decades, Verdi has remained an active alumna as class agent (for a remarkable 31 years), and class secretary for the Bulletin. She has also served on reunion committees.
Not surprisingly, Verdi’s professional life was as varied as her postretirement interests. After taking some years off for child rearing, she and Edward opened an art gallery, which led to a stint as art editor for the Newark Star-Ledger. She went on to become a high-school English teacher and volunteer for community organizations, namely the Newark Museum, co-founded by her grandfather, where she is a trustee emerita. Not to be forgotten is the Association for the Encouragement of Correct Punctuation, Spelling and Usage in Public Communications, Verdi’s one-woman effort to point out grammatical mistakes, with magic marker on grocery store signs or through written letters to news sources—an ongoing effort since the early ’80s.
“I still teach in my dreams,” she says of the favorite of all her roles. “Becoming a teacher at 40 gave me a huge advantage—I had the look and the voice. I could tell a 300-pound football player to sit down, and he would,” she says.
Despite the tumultuous backdrop of World War II, Verdi’s College memories mostly entail having fun, enjoying her studies, and falling in love.
One day in 1944, she sat next to Edward in class. They were engaged four months later. Her meticulously kept scrapbooks, now housed in McCabe Library, show the couple on campus, mostly around Clothier: Verdi in penny loafers and long skirts, Edward—who was at Swarthmore with the Navy’s V–12 program—in his sailor suit.
In those days, students were forbidden from formally announcing engagements. While their impending marriage was well known to friends, Verdi remembers concealing her ring on a necklace she wore beneath her clothes until graduation.
“It’s amazing how many Quaker matchbox couples there were in my year,” she says. “Since we weren’t allowed to get married while at Swarthmore, we became great friends with our spouses. We really knew each other before we got married.”
In 2008, Verdi ended her yearly class agent letter declaring, “Life is short. Break the rules. Forgive quickly. Kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably. And never regret anything that made you smile.” Statements like these speak to Verdi’s greatest achievement: She’s kept that laughing optimistic girl in penny loafers from the pages of her scrapbooks intact. And so, it stands to reason that Verdi’s still-unquenchable thirst for life is just one reason she continues to be a cat who walks alone.