On a sunny August morning, Renee Fitzgerald Johnson sat outside the house she was born in while passersby honked and shouted at her. I know it sounds horrible, but it wasn’t. It was quite the opposite. Renee was celebrating her 95th Birthday! Her children and grandchildren had decorated her front lawn with brightly colored letters, numbers, and balloons. Announcing to all that today was a special day, and the beautiful woman waving was an amazing lady who’s lived an extraordinary life.
Ida Renee Fitzgerald was born to Avis Luella Bonner and Benjamin Athel Fitzgerald on August 14, 1925. She was two when Charles Lindbergh made the first solo non-stop transatlantic flight, four when the great depression began, and fourteen at the start of World War Two. As a young woman, she witnessed the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, and man’s first steps on the moon. And, she has watched the transformation of Wasatch County through the years. When asked about how much our valley has changed, Renee responded with a simple, “Not a lot.” Her sweet answer testifies to the fact that, for Renee, the important things haven’t changed that much. Although much-loved grand-parents, parents, siblings, spouses, and friends may have passed, Renee is surrounded by friends, family, and memories, and they are what hold her heart.
Renee’s earliest memories of family and friends are centered on living with her maternal grandmother, Sarah Eliza Bronson Bonner, or Ma Bonner — as everyone called her. Ma’s husband, Renee’s grandfather, was William Bonner, the son of Margaret Edmondston and George Bonner who found their way from Ireland/Scotland to Provo Valley (now Midway), Utah around 1861. William and his older brother, George, were taught how to work from a young age. When ore was found in the nearby mountains, the two of them obtained a contract to supply timber for the Ontario Mine. Their business grew quickly and was very prosperous. The two boys shared their success with their parents and future families by building three beautiful homes. One for their parents (completed in 1876), and one for each of them and their brides-to-be (completed in 1878). Built on three corners of Midway’s first East and Main streets, the area became known as Bonner Corners.
On January 24, 1878 William married Sarah Eliza Bronson and George married Phoebe Annette Alexander in a double wedding ceremony in the home they built for George and Margaret. Afterwards each couple walked across the street to their respective homes to continue the celebration. According to family history it was quite the shin-dig. “Many guests were present and after the ceremony an elaborate banquet was served at both homes that had been built and completely furnished [as a wedding gift] for their brides, [and] dancing filled the evening.” 1
Designed and built by local master builder and architect, John Watkins, the three homes — with their red brick exterior and ornate white Gothic revival trim — quickly became known as the Gingerbread Houses. In 1879 the brothers built Bonner Brothers Mercantile (now Midway Mercantile Restaurant) on the corner across from George’s home to the west of their parents — completing the four Bonner Corners.
Renee shared, “I remember going over to the store [Midway Mercantile] with Ma [Bonner] nearly every day. We’d go over and Ma would visit with everyone in town.” Renee’s grand-daughter, Kim Powell, interjects, “So you were there forever!” The two laugh, apparently Ma Bonner liked to talk — a lot. Still chuckling Renee told her, “I would just get so tired, and I’d say, ‘Ma, is it alright if I go home and she’d say yes you can.’” Like most young girls growing up in the 1920’s Renee enjoyed playing dolls with friends, but she also liked helping Ma Bonner around the house. She preferred to stay inside rather than explore outside. Renee loved Ma’s house. She explained, “It was a nice home, and it was always clean, and I enjoyed that.” Her son, Jeff Johnson, and Kim both add that as Renee grew and started her own family she was an impeccable housekeeper and kept an immaculate home.
The mercantile remained one of Renee’s favorite places to be throughout her young life. “I liked it because there were always people there that I knew. They were always so friendly and we would talk and talk — even though I couldn’t get Ma out of the store and I’d go home — it was fun.” Her voice is full of emotion as she expresses, “I enjoyed Ma’s place so much.”
When Renee was five years old, it was time to go back home to Heber, her parents, siblings, and school. She attended Central Elementary School, built in 1892; the school was open for 110 years — closing its doors in 2002. The school was demolished in 2016, and the Heber Valley Police and Public Works building now occupies the ground where the school once stood. Renee’s school years are full of fond memories. “I loved school. I just loved it. I worked hard but it was all fun. I remember [one of my teachers] Mr. Giles, and he was pretty strict. He didn’t put up with any nonsense. He was the only one like that, but I really liked him. I had some good teachers, and they helped me a lot.” Renee liked all of her classes and said that she couldn’t recall having a favorite.
Renee was the fourth of seven children (five boys and two girls) Luella and Athel raised in the Heber home Renee lives in now. There were three bedrooms and one bathroom, Renee’s voice is cheerful as she shares, “But you know, it worked out well, I don’t know how we did — but we made it work.” When Kim asked Renee if she got along with her siblings she said, “I never remember a fight.” Jeff replied, “I don’t think I’m buying that.” I say if after 95 years you don’t remember sibling squabbles you’re remembering the right stuff. Renee remembers never wanting for anything. Kim shared, “I think [the] family was not incredibly wealthy but they were well off, with the store and the sheep — they owned a lot of property — and ran the livestock.” William operated the livestock business full-time — raising purebred horses and cattle, while George ran the Mercantile.
Renee and Kim both shared stories that Luella passed down to her posterity. Stories of traveling to school in a horse-drawn sleigh, wrapped in thick blankets with hot bricks at her feet, gliding over snow so high the sled went right over fence lines. Or when Luella was fourteen, and they cleaned the house for weeks and wore their Sunday best, in preparation for the night when they would turn the lights on in Midway for the first time during the fall of 1909, are treasured memories that continue to link generations. When Kim relates Luella’s words, “At the moment all of the lights came on in the house, [I] felt that heaven could not possibly be as beautiful and bright,” Renee becomes emotional remembering her mother and the heavenly, magical feelings her story always evokes.
Renee reflects on her time in Midway and Heber with affection, “Those were happy days,” happy days making a life. Renee recalls waiting to eat till the men came in from taking care of livestock and being one of the first families to own a car in the valley. She remembers making fudge and penuche, dancing and singing around the Christmas tree that sat in the middle of the room — lighted by real candles, and Christmas Pageants with cousins. She talks about spending time at the Ranch House in Woodland engaging in water fights (no one was immune including Luella — everyone got wet) and herding sheep. These are just a few of the life events Renee has experienced. Perhaps one of her favorite memories is ironing day. Luella did all the laundry on Mondays, and on Tuesdays she did all the ironing. Athel would always buy her a box of chocolates for ironing day. “If we would come in [the house] on Tuesday when she was ironing, we’d all sit down and have chocolate.” You can hear the fondness in Renee’s voice as she reminisces about her time growing up in the valley, “I loved those days — it was special.”
Then one day Renee met a boy.
World War II and Life with Dean
Dean Johnson was a year older than Renee and at first she didn’t think too much of him other than he was a good friend of her brother, Don. When World War II began Dean and all five of Renee’s brothers left to join the war effort. Renee’s father, Athel, was sick with fear and anxiety, years later when he succumbed to Cancer, Luella said that it was the war and the worry over his boys that made him ill and caused the cancer. Renee remembers her father fondly as she shares, “I wanted a Junior Prom dress, so Mother and Dad and I went down to Salt Lake to get it. I picked the most expensive one.” She laughs, “[Mother] said no, but dad said yes, and [we] got it. It [the trip] was so fun.” Renee loved her dress. “The dress had strawberries on it. It was really unusual, no one else had one.” She pauses for a moment before continuing, “Oh, I take that back. One other girl had strawberries on her dress and I was quite upset.” Renee, Jeff, and Kim all laugh together as they remember and imagine better days during the war.
After the war Dean returned to Heber and he and Renee started dating. They soon fell in love and when Dean finished his service in the Navy, the two tied the knot on June 28, 1946. They had three children; Valerie, Wesley (Wes), and Jeffrey. “They are very nice kids, of course this is a mother speaking.”
Both Dean and Renee come from big sheep herding families; soon after they were married the couple moved to Fountain Green in Sanpete County to run sheep. Like everyone, Dean and Renee experienced both ups and downs throughout their marriage but they found their rhythm and worked well together. Renee took pleasure in cleaning, while Dean enjoyed cooking. “Dean was the cook and never used a recipe. He was a phenomenal cook . . . and Renee made the best candy.” Dean loved gardening and Renee loved Japanese Bunka Embroidery. They were both hard workers and wanted to create a loving home for their children. Jeff shared that his parents’ support always meant so much to him and his siblings. “Mom and Dad always supported us in everything . . . every football game, every rodeo, everything . . . no matter how far away.” That support extended to their grandchildren as well. “They would be to everything they possibly could; concerts, soccer games, even if it meant sitting in the car as they got older.” Kim said. Renee added, “We loved it! We loved going to those games.” Jeff chuckles, “You could always tell where Renee was sitting, she was the loudest, and she always let the refs know if they made a mistake.”
Through the years the family has lived in Fountain Green, Orem, and Mountain Green. Renee worked for Browning Arms for 20 years, she also worked at ZCMI and did a little tutoring at the schools. Jeff recalls watching the moon landing on their black and white TV in their Orem home. When he asked his mom what she thought when man landed on the moon, Renee quipped one of the best responses I’ve heard, “Oh, I thought that was a pretty exceptional thing, how often does that happen!”
Renee’s personality draws you in from the get-go and like Ma Bonner, Renee loves to talk to people. Kim said, “Funny thing about her [recent] birthday; I took her out so she could see the sign, and she was having so much fun waving at people that she didn’t want to come in.” Renee waved and visited with neighbors from 10:00 – 8:00 Friday and Saturday. “It was fun! You don’t get many experiences like that and I’m just fortunate to have good grandkids.”
When Luella passed away in 1990 she left the house to Renee. In 1993 Dean and Renee’s lives came full circle as they returned home to Heber. Renee still lives in the house she was born in, the house she grew up in, the house she loves. On February 23, 2015, her beloved Dean passed away. Most of the neighbors she knew who used to live here have all passed away — Jeff and Kim believe that there are only two others from Renee’s class that are still living. Kim says, “She’s got really good neighbors who look after her.” Renee feels blessed and grateful to have such great neighbors, children, and grand-children. “My kids are so good. Kim [my grand-daughter] lives right here, my son Jeff is sitting right now with me on the couch — it is wonderful. I have a lot of really good grandchildren, they keep me up on things, and it helps a lot.” Kim and Jeff agree with Renee’s sentiment, “We always have so much fun when we get together.”
“Everyone always asks what Renee’s secret to longevity is.” Kim chuckles. “I always attribute it to just eating as much chocolate as you want, because Renee inherited her mother’s love of all things chocolate!” When asked what her favorite kind is; Renee sweetly says, “Chocolate Chocolate, not the dark stuff, I want the good stuff.” Renee has lived a beautiful, fulfilling 95 years, and looks forward to many more. In three simple sentences, Renee sums up what I think we all hope for, “It was a really fun life. I just enjoyed every bit of it, and even now I enjoy talking about it. Talking to you kids about it — it’s just delightful!”