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Rita Mae Johnston

September 26, 2009|By MARLO BARNHART

Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail publishes "A Life Remembered." This continuing series takes a look back -- through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others -- at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about Rita Mae Johnston, who died Sept. 16 at the age of 88. Her obituary was published in the Sept. 19 edition of The Herald-Mail.

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- In a word, Rita Mae Johnston's daughter, Holly Kadel, described her mother as "crafty" -- not in the sense of being devious, but rather as a woman who was artistic in multiple venues throughout her life.

As proof, Holly alluded to an egg carton she found in her mother's basement. The carton contained several beautiful and fragile painted eggshells her mother had created years earlier.

"Now, they are in a curio cabinet in my home," Holly said.

Holly and her four sisters are adjusting to life without their mother, who died Sept. 16 at the age of 88. Seven years ago, their father, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Howland Johnston, a Chambersburg native, passed away.

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"I'm the youngest," said Paula Noll, who was born a few years after her father retired from the military in the late 1950s. "Only I got to stay in one place while growing up."

Donna Bricker, the second oldest daughter, said she never spent more than two or three years in one house or in the same school.

That kind of life can be kind of tough for children, but by all accounts, Rita thrived in the hubbub of moving from country to country with her husband and children.

"While we were in Japan, Mom became immersed in Japanese cooking and flower arranging," Donna said. With little grasp of the language, Rita nonetheless took a course in Ikebana -- Japanese flower arranging -- in 1960.

Rita earned a certificate that is framed and hangs on Donna's wall.

Paula remembered how her mother created many flower arrangements over the years.

"If it didn't look right, she would tear it up and do it again," she said.

One year, Holly said she competed with her mother and her own daughter at the Chambersburg Daffodil Show.

"Mom took first," Holly said.

When Rita wasn't arranging flowers or growing her beloved roses, she was painting them on canvas, another of her artistic talents.

Rita's talents weren't lost on the next generation.

At Rita's funeral, Donna's daughter, Amy, spoke at length about this strong and diverse woman.

"When I think of Grandmommy, I think of everything beautiful," Amy read at the service.

Always a lady, Rita was known for her well-dressed appearance, her custom-made hats and ever-present little white gloves.

"I kept one of mom's hats and my sister, Jamy Curtis, wore one to the funeral," Donna said.

Describing her mother as "fabulous," Jamy said she was filled with admiration.

"I'll never be able to keep up with her," she said.

Rita was a hardworking volunteer for many organizations. She loved to be in things and was admired by many, Jamy said.

"When I was in school, Mom always made sure my pleated skirts were crisp," Jamy said.

Born in Louisiana, Rita met her future husband at a church function.

"They didn't click right away ... there was some kind of argument about chicken," Donna said.

But when Howland began following her home from work, the sparks began to fly. They were married in November 1940 and began their family as World War II loomed.

Happy to be a wife, mother and homemaker, Rita started volunteering more and more as her children grew. She eventually drew her daughters into volunteerism, too.

"She and I worked together in blood services for the American Red Cross," Donna said.

The mother-daughter team also helped pack up ditty bags for those serving in the Vietnam War.

When she wasn't doing things for her family, Rita gave time to her church; the Girl Scouts in Alaska, New York and Japan; and Chambersburg's sister city of Gotemba, Japan.

Rita will be missed, but all agree she will live on in their memories.

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