March 12, 2013

Vere Hodges Johnson Made Many Smiles

Gerald Simmons lay uncomfortably in the dental chair, unsure of what he was hearing.  Dr. Johnson was leaning over him, tools in hand, murmuring unhappily.  “Gerald, why it’s the darndest thing.  In all my years of dentistry, I have never seen anything quite like this,” Dr. Johnson repeated.  “It looks almost like one of your back molars at some time has come in contact with a strong electric current.”  As this registered with Gerald, his expression changed from alarm to understanding and he relaxed.  Dr. Johnson started to laugh as only he could. 
Relieved, Gerald chuckled too—Dr. Johnson’s laugh was far too infectious to avoid joining in.   

His memory went back to that summer day when he was a boy so many years ago.  He and his twin brother Darold thought the world of Vere Johnson, a neighbor boy just a few years older than they.  They all lived in the small rural town of Beaver Dam, Utah.  Often,  they went to see what Vere was up to, and did their best to shadow him and do whatever he was doing.  Even though the two little boys almost certainly got in his way, Vere never sent them away.  Instead, he teased them and paid attention to them.   They loved being with Vere.  He laughed all the time.  It was just plain fun to be with him. 

One day when they were shadowing Vere on an errand, they came to an electric fence along the way.  Vere got that distinct twinkle in his eye Gerald and Darold learned to avoid.  Vere asked them how tough they were.  “Are you tough enough to bite an electric fence?” Vere asked.  Vere cupped his hands close to the fence and pretended to bite between his hands, so they couldn’t tell he wasn’t really biting the fence.  Gerald and Darold knew they could do it too.  Gerald leaned in quickly, mouth wide open and clamped his teeth onto the fence.  The electric shock proved that Vere had gotten them again!  And Vere’s accompanying laugh all the way back to their house rang in their ears.  Vere had tricked them into other scrapes as well— once he sent them in to the chicken coop to look for a skunk with clothespins on their noses.  “There’s no tunk but there’s plenty of tink,” they reported, a statement Vere repeated with relish for years to come.  There were other little boys who liked to follow Vere around; they were treated to greased ears (don’t want to catch brain fever) or taught to swim by being roped and thrown into a river, or hung up in the barn by their overhauls.  

After these kinds of pranks as kids, why did Gerald trust Vere Johnson, now Dr. Johnson, to take care of his teeth?  Could he trust a man who got such a kick out of teasing people to not take advantage of him?  Gerald, like many others, had decided that Vere was the most honest dentist in Cache Valley and Gerald wouldn’t go to any other dentist.  Dr. Johnson’s rates were the lowest and he didn’t do work that wasn’t necessary.  It was hard to get an appointment with Dr. Johnson because he was booked up solid six months ahead.  

Indeed, Vere had discussed his fees with his wife, Winnie Johnson.  She often heard how the other dentists in the area were angry with Vere because his prices were so low.   He’d tell her, “I don’t have to answer to those other dentists about what I charge my patients.  I know what my expenses are and I make a good living.  I don’t have to gouge my patients to be in line with what my profession charges.  I only have to answer to God and my own conscience for how I run my business.” 

Kathy, Vere’s daughter, worked for him for a few years, recording the charges for services rendered.  She explained, “Bitewing x-rays were $4, there were three different charges for fillings, depending on the size: $4, $8 and $12.  There was never any charge for a check-up if no work was needed.  I remember a time when a family came in with 10 children.  All, including the parents, were checked, which took most of the morning and none had any work needing to be done, so there was absolutely no charge to that family.  It isn’t any wonder that my dad was booked every 15 minutes.  He called the office ‘the salt mine’ because he was so pressed by people there.  People would come from Alaska and California to have him do their dental work because they could pay for their whole trip and stay a week in Utah and have spent less than going to a dentist where they lived.  I remember Dad saying that wisdom teeth were usually the easiest to extract.  There was usually no expense to the dentist to do the extracting.  He only used a little Novocain and an extraction tool.  He was angry when he heard what other dentists charged.”

Indeed, Dr. Johnson charged far less than the average dentist.  According to a study published in the American Dental Association about this time, other dentists charged $5 on average for an exam and an average of $10 for a one surface filling and $22 for a three surface filling at the time.[1]  Dr. Johnson charged nothing for an exam and about half of the other figures.
“What an extraordinary man was my father,” Kathy continued, “How little the world and greed controlled his decisions.”

Gerald Simmons' wife emotionally explained her husbands’ love for Vere, saying that he truly idolized Vere all of his life.  When Gerald wrote his personal life history, he named Vere as one of three heroes he had as a child growing up.  She said how sad it was for them to miss Vere’s funeral, as they were serving a Temple Mission in Nauvoo when he died.  She expressed how much Vere meant to herself and to her husband and how she still missed Dr. Johnson after all these years since his retirement.  “I still can’t bring myself to go to another dentist,” she said.  She made this statement some 25 years after he retired.  

Vere clearly had a sense of humor and teased his friends and associates.  This was one of Vere’s many endearing traits.  Many found his honesty and fairness made him the most trusted dentist in Cache Valley.   Combined, this made a visit to the dentist an enjoyable experience.  A family friend made this statement:  "When Dr. Johnson attends, the pain is gone, the patient smiles."  Indeed all who interacted with Vere Johnson, either as a friend or a Dentist, always left with a smile.  Proverbs 17:22 reads, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  Over the years, Vere shared a great deal of merriness that was indeed good medicine for all of us who knew and loved him.

[1] L. Jackson Brown, D.D.S., Ph.D.; Vickie Lazar, M.A., M.S., Dental Procedure Fees 1975 Through 1995: How Much Have They Changed?  Journal of the American Dental Association, Vol. 129, September 1998, pp. 1291-1295.

Thatcher, Kathy Johnson.  Email correspondence March 2009.

Mary Elizabeth Doxey (Mamie), Mother to Many Children

Mamie must have been surprised when Jack Donaldson came to the door and asked to see her.  Mamie’s father had been encouraging Jack to remarry after the death of his wife; Mamie had heard him over dinner for the last several months talk about how concerned he was about Jack’s situation.  Jack had 7 young children.  Mamie remembered she had gone with a friend and gathered flowers for his wife at her death.  For well over a year now, Jack and his boys had been 'baching it' alone while his girls lived with his mother-in-law.  He needed to remarry to provide himself with a wife and his children with a mother, Mamie’s dad concluded. 

Mary Elizabeth Doxey, or “Mamie” to her friends and family, was born in 1892 into a faithful Latter-day Saint family in Ogden Utah.  She was the second daughter in a family of 10 children.  Her mother had said Mamie was ‘her right arm and stand-by,’ relying on her help in caring for the children in their large family.  She also loved to work outside with her father and brothers on their 14 acres of farmland and pastures, becoming a tom-boy of sorts, strong and sturdy.  Although by her own account a poor reader and speller, Mamie did well in school and began nurses training at Weber Academy.  That study ended suddenly in November 1910.

When Mamie was 18 years old, her dear mother died after contracting typhoid fever.  It happened in just a few weeks.  Mamie and the older girls in her family regrouped, taking care of the children.  Nellie, the oldest was 20 years old, while Jack, the youngest wasn’t yet a year old.  Nellie married soon afterward, leaving Mamie the bulk of the responsibility.  For the next 10 years, Mamie took on the responsibilities that had been her Mothers.  She tried to follow her Mother’s pattern in taking care of their home and raising the children.  

Mamie’s father showed his gratitude for the help she gave him by often saying, ‘what would I have done if the Lord hadn’t given me my girl?’  The family recovered from the grief of losing their mother, largely due to Mamie’s hard work and attention to the children.  

It was hard work caring for such a large family.  Mamie missed out on many of the activities her friends were enjoying.  But she was happy at home caring for her family, where she knew she was needed.  The first time she was able to spend a day away with her friends was 6 years after her mother had passed away!  As she watched her younger sisters Verna, Florence, and Alfarata (Olva) all marry and move on with her lives, she took satisfaction from their successes, just as a mother would.  Is it worth it?”  Mamie probably wondered periodically.  She may have wondered if she'd every marry as she aged.  Remembering how grateful her father was for her help probably settled everything in her mind again.

More grief followed when Mamie’s sister Nellie died, leaving a baby behind.  Mamie took that baby in and raised her along with the rest of her siblings.  Her younger sister Verna lost her husband in a train accident, leaving her a young widow with two young children.  Mamie took those kids in during the day, allowing Verna to work to support her family.  Mamie was doing just fine, happily filling the needs she saw in her home.  

Now here Jack was, asking for her at the door.  John Kissell Donaldson, or Jack as he was affectionately called, knew a good thing when he saw it.  He had seen how Mamie had taken care of her siblings in their grief, he was sure she would help him and his children now.  Jack was ready to remarry.  What would Mamie’s father think?  Jack was taking his advice by courting his daughter!  

Understandably, Mamie was wary.  Did she want to get mixed up with this man and all of his children?  Seven of them!  But when she was with him, she felt good.  She knew she loved him from their first date.  Although her 10-year-old brother, whom she raised from infancy, called her 'Mama' still, she was confident that her own family could manage without her.  And besides, she may never get another chance to marry, now that she was older. 

After considering everything, Mamie accepted Jack’s affections on one condition:  that he become sealed in the Temple in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to his first wife beforehand.  Jack and his first wife Hazel had only been married civilly although both were members of the church.  Knowing Mamie’s unalterable resolve, Jack took the steps necessary to do so.  Taking the children with him, he went to the Ogden temple in March 1920 and was sealed to Hazel and his children.  Meanwhile, Mamie received her Patriarchal blessing.  In it, she was told, “the labors of thy … ministry thus far have pleased the Lord.  Thou shalt be crowned with thy blessings, not only as a chosen daughter, but as an honored mother in Israel.”  This was the right thing to do and Mamie was ready to give it her best effort.

Jack and Mamie were married on November 10, 1920 and Mamie began caring for her new family.  Mamie delivered 10 children of her own and raised them all to adulthood, with the exception of her first child Ralph, who died shortly after delivery.  Many were raised during the depression, adding to the difficulty of feeding and clothing such a large family.   

All told, Mamie raised 23 children to adulthood—7 siblings, 7 step children and 9 children.  Many other children, including her nieces, nephews, and grand children spent a considerable amount of time in her home and under her care.  No wonder that her children described her as a 'peace-maker, soft as velvet on the outside but inside she was made of steel!'

Mamie’s own siblings might say that young Mamie made mistakes as she urged them to do their chores, sat them down to do their homework and reminded them to make their beds.  Mamie’s step-children might say that she made mistakes as she sent them outside to chop firewood, off to school or work, or into the kitchen to help make dinner.  Mamie’s own children might also say that she made mistakes as she sent them to school, reminded them to brush their teeth and sent them indoors to do their chores.  No mother is perfect; the idea would make all mothers cringe with the guilt of unmet expectations.  With so many children to care for, it’s inconceivable that it could be done perfectly.  

What is remarkable, though, is that Mamie was willing to take mother-less children under her protection and ‘mother’ them the best she knew how.  Twice, she accepted the responsibility and performed to the best of her ability.  Step-daughter May said, “I think of how hard my mother worked.  I’ve never seen such a hard worker than she was.  My dad and she didn’t have too much.  We all had to kind of go without.  But we got by because they sacrificed.  They raised a family to be proud of.  We all turned out good for a family that large.” 

May continued, “I’m so glad my stepmother married my dad.  I don’t know what would have happened to us if she hadn’t married my dad.  We’ve had our ups and downs, but she has been so good.   [I didn’t realize it at the time, but] she was my best friend.” 

Imperfect Mary Elizabeth Doxey, or Mamie, welcomed children into her home, giving her best to the task of raising them. 

“The Life of John Kissell Donaldson” Unknown author and date.  12 Pages
Donaldson, Mary Elizabeth Doxey.  "Autobiography" Unknown date.  1 Page.
Quinn, Ted D.  The Economic History of the Donaldson Family & America, 1831-1975.  Term Paper.  Provo:  Brigham Young University, 1990.  Print.
West, May Donaldson.  "May Donaldson West:  An Autobiography." Ed. by Melanie Jensen Johnson.  North Carolina:  2009.  Print.