If you passed Ruth Johnston on the street, you could be forgiven if you misjudged her age; after all, the Wilmette resident doesn’t look a day over 80.
So it might come as a surprise that Johnston is 101 years old.
Johnston, a retired piano teacher with a quiet manner and a friendly smile, doesn’t appear too impressed with her status as a centenarian-plus. Nor does she think there’s much else that’s remarkable about her.
Her son, Jamie, of Northbrook, begs to differ; so do her neighbors on the 1900 and 2000 blocks of Highland Avenue.
In fact, neighbors Jennie Mitchell and Kristy McCullough say Johnston is a beloved and integral part of the neighborhood.
As her Sept. 12 101st birthday neared, Mitchell and McCullough decided they wanted to honor her and celebrate the milestone. They decided that a revival of the neighborhood’s block party would be the perfect way to do so.
The Sept. 17 party brought together Johnston’s friends, and families whose children have grown up with her games and songs, and who know she will often sit out in her front yard to greet and play with them as they go by.
They held a bicycle parade, played games and barbecued up and down the street, then presented Johnston with a cake and sang her “Happy Birthday.”
“It was a great success,” Mitchell said this week. “We had good weather, and I think everyone was happy to be there.”
The night before the party, Johnston was looking forward to the party, but confessed to being a little nonplussed at all the attention.
“They’re doing all this for me,” she said with a small shake of her head. “Isn’t that amazing?”
Jamie Johnston praised Mitchell, McCullough and other neighborhood residents for their kindness to his mother.
“It’s a unique block with great people, and it’s been that way for 50 years. I grew up here from the 4th grade on,” he said. “Everyone knew everyone else and people cared about each other. The neighbors may have changed over the years, but that feeling hasn’t.”
He was also visibly proud of his mother, whose life took her from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, to a Depression-era train-trip meeting with Angus Johnston, the man who would become her husband, and from there to Chicago, Indiana, Evanston and, finally, Highland Avenue.
Angus and Ruth raised Jamie and his sister, Heather, in the neighborhood.
Both husband and wife were teachers — Angus Johnston at New Trier High School and Ruth, who had a degree from the Toronto Conservatory of Music, at home.
She still plays piano, and before the party she demonstrated, with a sprightly old tune, that her musical skill hadn’t faded with time.
Johnston also made time, while teaching and raising a family, to paint and draw — her home is full of the arts and crafts she has completed over the decades — and to help found the Canadian Women’s Club of Chicago, an organization for expatriate Canadians, in 1960 (the group is still active today.)
But her greatest joy was socializing with friends and neighbors.
“I don’t socialize as much as I used to,” she said regretfully. “But I do watch the world go by out the dining room window. If there’s action, I see it.”
“She’s always been kind,” Jamie Johnston said earlier this month. “I think it’s the way she grew up. She said you’d never know who would be home for supper, because her brother would constantly be bringing people home to eat. And that’s what happened at our house, too; at Christmas we always had unattached people at the table.”
Jamie Johnston joked that his mother’s Canadian heritage made her immune to her children’s complaints about the cold. She would tell them to play outside in the winter, “and she’d say, ‘It isn’t 40 below. Go out!’”
She also had a quiet but unique sense of humor. Johnston recalled his mother repeatedly telling her horrified offspring about her stint as a veterinary lab assistant, putting the brains of deceased horses into petri dishes — and waiting until everyone was at the dinner table before recounting the tale.
It’s Johnston’s gentle side that impresses her neighbors now.
“I’ve lived next door to her for six years, and she is incredible,” McCullough said before the party. “She still walks up and down the block almost every day, and she’ll sit outside and say hello to all the kids. My kids jump out of the car and run to her when they see her, and she plays games with them, sings to them and tells them all kinds of wonderful stories.
“She’s a breath of sunshine and fresh air. Her reaction when she was told about the block party was, ‘Oh my gosh, you’d like to do this for me?’
“She really has no idea what she does for our children and our neighborhood, the smiles she puts on our faces.”