Grace Hovey Johnston was a Los Altos mom when she founded Music for Minors in 1976 to fill a need after state budget cuts eliminated funding for arts programs in local schools. The nonprofit organization has since evolved into a music education powerhouse, serving thousands of students throughout the Bay Area.
Mrs. Johnston, who moved to Los Gatos in 2011, died Jan. 20 after a short illness. She was just shy of her 88th birthday.
In a recently published obituary, family and friends described Mrs. Johnson as 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.”
Born in Evanston, Ill., Mrs. Johnston was raised in Kansas City, Mo., the eldest of three daughters. Growing up in a musical family, Mrs. Johnston was drawn to music at an early age. She also enjoyed acting and drama and performed in children’s theater.
Mrs. Johnson attended Sunset Hill School, a private school in Kansas City where the arts were an integral part of the curriculum. She told family members that the school had a major influence on her throughout her life as an artist, educator and parent.
After high school, Mrs. Johnston attended Bradford College in Bradford, Mass., majoring in liberal arts with minors in psychology and music. She performed solo and in concert with various vocal and orchestral ensembles.
Her love of dancing ultimately led Mrs. Johnston to dance partner and future husband Jim Johnston. They were married in 1953 and had three sons. The Johnston family moved to Los Altos in 1966.
Saving music education
In 1973, distraught that music and art were being slashed from the curriculum in public schools due to budget cuts, Mrs. Johnston took matters into her own hands.
Her advocacy led to the creation of Music for Minors, dedicated to bringing music back into public school classrooms. With some initial backing from the Junior League, Mrs. Johnston wrote the job description and became the organization’s first executive director. She began with two school districts and 28 trained docents. Four years later, the organization was training 124 docents in a large number of school districts. By the time Music for Minors celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016, it was serving 25,000 children annually throughout the Bay Area.
Dennis and Linda Ronberg, founders of Linden Tree Children’s Recordings & Books in Los Altos, were good friends with Mrs. Johnston and devoted supporters of Music for Minors.
“Dennis and I were so fond of Grace and so grateful for her amazing determination to bring music to children, after music funding was cut from the curriculum,” Linda Ronberg said in a statement. “She was always so upbeat and positive and energetic! And what a beautiful voice!”
Ronberg said Mrs. Johnston created a community of volunteers who not only cared about exposing children to musical experiences, but also cared about each other.
“Music for Minors was more than just a volunteer organization – it was family and community,” Ronberg said. “And now that seed of an idea that Grace planted and nurtured all those years ago has blossomed and grown and serves more children than any of us ever imagined would be possible.”
Mrs. Johnston 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 Gardner Award for Community Building and the designation of Dec. 15, 2012, as Grace Johnston Day in the city of Los Altos.
Dedicated to church
Mrs. Johnston was dedicated to the Episcopal Church. During high school, she joined the Episcopal Young Community and sang in the choir. Upon arriving in Los Altos, the Johnston family joined Christ Episcopal Church, where Mrs. Johnston taught Sunday school, formed a women’s group, sang in the choir and served as senior warden of the vestry.
Mrs. Johnston resided in Los Altos for 42 years before moving to The Terraces of Los Gatos five years after the death of her husband. She immersed herself in artistic and social activities, assuming direction of the glee club and rekindling a longtime interest in landscape painting.
A memorial for Mrs. Johnston was held Feb. 24 at Christ Episcopal Church.
“She was loving, devoted and generous, she was resilient and she was radiant,” her second- youngest son, Philip, said in his eulogy. “Over and over, she rebounded from challenges in her life, reinventing herself each time, never overcome by events to the point of being defeated.”
He recalled the way his mother handled family crises – the declining health of her husband and the health problems of her youngest son, Matthew, who died in September.
“She faced both head-on, researching everything she could to manage these two crises in our lives,” Philip said. “Her courage carried her far and sustained the rest of us.”
Mrs. Johnston “advocated for others and always made time for you,” Philip added. “She didn’t ever limit herself – in her consideration of new ideas, new possibilities, new friends and new ways of being.”
Mrs. Johnston is survived by sons William (Bill) Pilcher Johnston II (Robin) and Philip Wendover Johnston (Barbara), sisters Joan Hovey Waller and Ann Hovey, and grandchildren Michael and Brian Johnston.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Grace Johnston Legacy Fund at Music for Minors, 1100 Industrial Road Suite 10, San Carlos 94070; or the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill through nami.org.