Feb 17, 1930 – Jan 20, 2018
On Saturday, January 20, 2018, Grace Hovey Johnston, passed peacefully at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, California, after a short illness, just shy of her 88th birthday. A person of extraordinary devotion, generosity, artistic talent and resilience, Grace was a large and wonderful presence in so many people's lives, who will be missed by all those who knew and loved her.
Grace H. Johnston was born on February 17, 1930, in Evanston, Illinois, to Philip George Hovey and Gertrude Mays Hovey, Grace grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and was the oldest of three daughters. Growing up in a musical family where everyone played the piano and sang, Grace was drawn to music at a very early age. Whether it was around the piano, doing the dishes or riding in the car, singing and playing music was a constant presence in Grace's young life.
As a child, Grace was also drawn to acting and drama, performing in children's theater. Inspired for more, Grace staged shows in her back yard, directing the neighborhood kids while her mother "pulled the curtain" sheets on the clothesline.
A key part of Grace's artistic development started at Sunset Hill School, a private progressive girls school in Kansas City, Missouri, which she attended from nursery school through 7th grade. Music, drama and dance were an integral part of the curriculum at Sunset Hill School, which she cited as having a huge influence on her throughout her entire life, as an artist, educator and a parent.
Grace skipped the 8th grade to attend a public high school, Southwest High School in Kansas City, Missouri, because her father had lost his job. She recalled that it was scary moving from the progressive format at Sunset Hill School to a large public school but she finally adjusted, and in her senior year she became the first girl cheerleader at Southwest High and acted in the school Variety show.
After high school, Grace attended Bradford Junior College in Bradford, Massachusetts, majoring in liberal arts with minors in Psychology and Music. She also began serious private voice lessons, performing both solo and in concerts with various vocal and orchestral ensembles.
Grace planned on a career in teaching and transferred to Missouri University, where she graduated in 1953 with a BS in Education, and a Minor in music. While pursuing her degree, Grace continued with her theatrical pursuits, studying drama and acting in plays. One of her favorite memories at Missouri University was acting opposite the inimitable George C. Scott as his leading lady in "The Winslow Boy."
Grace had a lifelong love of dancing that ultimately led her to her future husband and love of her life, Jim Johnston. After graduating college Grace taught elementary school near Webster Grove, Missouri, but it was rough going and eventually she returned to Kansas City at the behest of her parents. Soon after returning, Grace was invited to participate in a large Cotillion to kick off The American Royal, a 2-week celebration of horse and livestock shows for the Midwest. She needed a dance partner so she grabbed James Johnston (Jim), who she had just been introduced to, because she knew he could dance. They had a wonderful time rehearsing twice a week, and this led to a closer relationship, which she found pleasing - and confusing - because she was seeing Bob, a medical student in St. Louis. Jim would drive Grace to the train so she could see Bob in St. Louis, and pick her up, eventually resulting in her looking forward more to being picked up by Jim than seeing Bob. Ultimately, she fell in love with Jim, and had to write the dreaded "Dear John" letter to Bob. Grace and Jim continued their dancing together and were long-standing members of a ballroom dancing club founded by David Packard.
Grace and Jim announced their engagement in February, secretly bought a house in June, and were married on August 14, 1953. Over the following 13 years, while living in Kansas City, Grace gave birth to her three sons: William Pilcher Johnston, Philip Wendover Johnston, and Matthew Mays Johnston. Grace and Jim settled into family life and eventually moved into a house large enough to accommodate their growing family.
Several years after son Philip was born, Grace returned to her loves of music and theater. She and Jim became involved in the Circle Star Theater of Kansas City, Grace as a stock performer, Jim as their official photographer, and both serving as founding members of the Guild of the Circle Theater. During her time with the Circle Theater, Grace played several leading roles, including the lead, "Edith," in Noel Coward's "Hay Fever." But her defining role was as "Little Mary," the title role in Rick Besoyen's "Little Mary Sunshine." Grace knew she was well-suited for the part of Little Mary, noting that as a child, she had admired Jeanette MacDonald, and the show, Little Mary Sunshine, was a send-up of Jeanette MacDonald's parts with Nelson Eddy.
Grace was raised by a family that considered community service both a duty and a privilege, and she grew to embody that ethic in remarkable and impactful ways. Starting in Kansas City, Grace began her extensive community service with the Junior League by volunteering as a trained docent at the Nelson Adkins Art Gallery. She also was involved in Children's Theater, eventually becoming a Director while also serving as Vice President.
Grace and Jim pulled up stakes in August of 1966 and eventually moved to Los Altos, California, after a 2.5-year detour to Carbondale, Illinois, where Jim took a job in Property Management. Once settled in Los Altos, Grace resumed her music, as well as teaching, and continued to raise her children.
In 1973, distraught that music and art was being cut from the curriculum in public schools due to budget cuts, Grace decided to take matters into her own hands. This effort ultimately led to the creation of Music for Minors, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing music back into the public schools. With some initial backing from the Junior League, Grace wrote the job description and became the first Executive Director. She began with 2 school districts, and 28 trained docents. The program went viral, and four years later, they were training 124 docents in many school districts. Music for Minors has already celebrated their 40th anniversary, reaching 25,000 children in 800 classes in the Bay Area each year. Since 2010, Music for Minors has tripled the number of children to whom they provide music education, bringing them closer to their goal of creating a world where all children receive music education.
Grace received numerous awards for her work with Music for Minors, including the PTA Service Award, the Community Service Award from the Los Altos Board of Realtors, the John Gardiner Award for Building Community, and the designation of December 15th, 2012 as Grace Johnston Day in the city of Los Altos.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Grace continued her classical voice training, studying with teachers at UC Santa Cruz and the Conservatory of San Francisco, and gave numerous concerts up and down the Peninsula to the great delight of many.
Grace's dedication to the Episcopal Church was life-long. During high school, in addition to attending church and Sunday school, she joined the Episcopal Young Community every Sunday night, and sang in the Adult choir. Throughout her adult life in Kansas City, Grace was a dedicated and generous member of various parishes, including St. Andrew's and Grace Cathedral. Upon arriving in Los Altos, California in early 1969, the family joined Christ Episcopal Church, where Grace taught Sunday school, formed a women's group, sang in the choir, often as a soloist, and served as the Senior Warden on the Vestry.
Grace resided in Los Altos for 42 years before moving to The Terraces in Los Gatos in 2011, five years after the passing of her beloved Jim. True to form, Grace immersed herself in artistic and social activities, taking over the direction of the Glee Club, an annual Variety show and participating in ballroom dancing. Additionally, as her trained singing voice began to wane, Grace needed something to fill that void and channel her innate artistry. Drawing on the visual artistry she inherited from her mother, Gertrude Hovey, a professional portrait artist, she rekindled a long-time interest in landscape painting, to great effect, putting out a prolific body of work.
In September of 2017, Grace lost her youngest son, Matthew Mays Johnston, in a tragic accident on a mountain in Colorado. Showing tremendous courage and resilience, Grace continued to stay engaged in life while dealing with that profound and shattering loss.
Grace is survived by her two eldest sons, William (Bill) Pilcher Johnston II (Robin), Philip Wendover Johnston (Barbara), her two younger sisters, Joan Hovey Waller and Ann Hovey, and her two grandchildren, Michael and Brian Johnston.
A memorial service was held on Saturday, February 24th, 2018, 10:00 AM at Christ Episcopal Church, 1040 Border Road, Los Altos, CA 94024. Donations in Grace’s honor may be sent to the "Grace Johnston Legacy Fund," at Music for Minors, 1100 Industrial Road Suite 10, San Carlos, CA 94070; or the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, www.nami.org.