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Jenkins woman finds peace in junking, traveling and meditation

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Sue Johnson of Jenkins looks for peace wherever she can find it, whether it is in her garden, the fish house, on the North Shore, a Florida beach or in her home practicing Qigong meditation.

Qigong, an ancient Chinese practice that incorporates movement and breathing techniques with the purpose of healing, became a central part of Johnson’s life in 2007, when a counselor recommended she seek alternative therapy after experiencing the death of her father. Johnson said the practice has been transformative for her.

“I firmly believe I might still be sitting on that couch,” Johnson said. “I think anytime you are working with your body, it’s spiritual.”

These days, Johnson does anything but sit on the couch, it seems. She runs her antique and secondhand store, Annie’s Attic in Jenkins, as a “one-man show,” and although the store is only open in the summer months, she spends the rest of the year attending as many auctions and estate sales as possible. Open since 2007, last year was the best so far for her business, but not for a lack of work on her part.

“I believe in putting in 110 percent into my store,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be my retirement.”

Johnson was born in November 1956 in Hopkins and moved to the lakes area in 1970, after her parents converted their lake cabin on Upper Cullen Lake into a year-round home. The sixth of eight siblings, five brothers and two sisters, Johnson loved to ice skate, participated in 4-H and felt drawn to track and field, where she most particularly enjoyed long-distance running.

She graduated from Pequot Lakes High School in 1975 and soon after began working as a receptionist for Whitebirch Resort in Breezy Point. It was at Whitebirch in 1977 that she met her late ex-husband, Chuck Johnson, who was part of the sales team. The couple was married in 1979 in a quick ceremony at the courthouse in Brainerd, a union prompted by Chuck’s friend who said he wouldn’t allow another marriage license for the couple expire (they’d already let a few go by).

In 1982, when Johnson was nine months pregnant with the couple’s first daughter, Heidi, she and Chuck moved to Brownsville, Texas, in search of job opportunities on South Padre Island. Meanwhile, most of their possessions were stored in the house where Johnson currently lives to wait for their return, which came in 1985 when she found out she was pregnant with their second daughter, Holly.

“We wanted our second child to grow up with her cousins,” Johnson said. “I wanted us to be with family.”

The couple had two more daughters, Hannah in 1989 and Hattie in 1994. In 1990, the Johnsons opened their own business acquiring foreclosed timeshare properties and reselling them, which gave them the perfect opportunity to travel south in the winter as a family. The couple would pack up the girls and head to Florida or Texas for two to six weeks at a time.

They took the kids to museums, art galleries, theaters, beaches and even to Minnesota Twins spring training games. In the spring, the family would travel out west, camping in tents in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks and up and down the California coast.

“Their teachers didn’t like it,” Johnson said of pulling her daughters from school for so long. “But we truly felt our kids would learn more and get more out of the experience. They learned how to travel.”

In 1999, an extended rough patch began for Johnson and her family. Chuck was diagnosed with stage IV Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and after refusing radiation treatment, he entered a clinical trial at the Mayo Clinic to test out a new drug. The drug worked, for a time anyway, and Chuck was cancer-free by the following year.

At the end of 2001, after 22 years of marriage, the couple separated and later divorced. In early 2002, Chuck found out the cancer had returned, and this time, with a vengeance, but it was in June of that year that tragedy really struck for the Johnsons.

Chuck and his brother-in-law and close friend, Ron Myers, went on a fishing trip on a secluded lake in Two Harbors and never returned. Myers’ body was found in the water near the pair’s canoe, but after an extensive search and recovery operation, Chuck’s body was never located.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the event made it even more difficult for Johnson and her daughters to cope, and Johnson relied on her siblings to get herself and her family through the tragedy.

“You never ever think you’ll have two members of your family die at the same time,” Johnson said. “Taking it ‘one day at a time’ is bull. It’s one minute at a time.”

Johnson and her four daughters relied on their strong familial bond and the strength of one another to make it through. In 2009, the family held a private remembrance of Chuck at the lake in Two Harbors, placing notes to him in a bottle and floating a wreath to say their goodbyes.

Despite the incredible adversity Johnson has faced, she remains upbeat and fully dedicated to her daughters and business. Her favorite thing to do is to go to the North Shore, and she and her family of nine, including grandchildren and significant others, recently began a tradition of traveling there together that she hopes will continue.

“I feel at peace there, I can sit on the rocks at the lake all day,” Johnson said.

If anyone deserves peace, it is Sue Johnson.

Chelsey Perkins
Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her Bachelor's degree in professional journalism from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Perkins has interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before joining the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.
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