Lac qui Parle County woman never let go of anything, then gave away $2 million to Minnesota organizations

Feb. 18—LAC QUI PARLE VILLAGE — Betty Jane Johnson was known through much of her life as someone who literally could not let go of anything.

She will be remembered for letting it all go, to the tune of roughly $2,270,000, representing the entire assets of her estate. The funds were distributed to 22 different organizations, none of which had any inkling they would be sharing in the assets of the trust fund she created.

"When he told me, I about fell out of my chair," said Walt Gessler, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources manager of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area. He was speaking about the phone call informing him of the $227,000 Johnson had bequeathed the wildlife refuge.

"It came out of the blue," said Deb Lanthier, head librarian of the Dawson Municipal Library, of the letter the library received informing it of the $22,700 earmarked for it. "Really a wonderful surprise. We're grateful, extremely grateful."

Years before her death at age 95 on Dec. 9, 2020, Johnson created the trust and identified the 22 beneficiaries, each receiving anywhere from 1% to 15% of the fund.

The churches she and family members had attended, Our Saviour's Lutheran Church of Baxter in rural Montevideo and the Lac qui Parle Lutheran Church in Dawson, the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter in Willmar, the Green Lake Bible Camp in Spicer, the Boys and Girls Scouts of Dawson, the Watson Fire Department, and the Mountain Lake Elementary School, where she once taught, are examples of the diverse recipients sharing in the fund.

The fund's trustees were able to send out letters in 2021 informing recipients about the unexpected donations coming their way. The final checks to the recipients were sent out at the end of 2022, following the sale of some remaining lands owned by the estate.

"Betty was an intelligent, caring and independent woman," in the words of Dustin Citrowske, a trustee appointed by Johnson to oversee the fund.

"A unique lady, I don't know how else to describe her that way," in the words of Lisa Malecek, who shared in the trustee duties.

Citrowske's dad and other family members had been friends to Johnson and her brother, Donald, with whom she lived for many years. Citrowske got to know her while a high school student working at a convenience store she visited. He believes she appointed him as a trustee due to the trust and friendship that they had developed.

Malecek served as a bookkeeper with the elevator in Dawson, where Johnson sold much of the grain she had custom-farmed on the family land she owned in the area of Lac qui Parle Village. She also came to know Johnson as a friend.

Citrowske said Johnson never discussed the "why" behind her selection of beneficiaries. He believes they were all places important to her. "She had a strong foundation of faith and education, and a love for animals," he explained.

She loved wildlife of all kinds, but, especially, she loved the farm cats she fed at the family farm located on a steep bank over the Lac qui Parle River. Johnson grew up on the family farm and taught country school, including at the nearby Lac qui Parle Village. With the country school's closing in the early 1960s, Johnson took a job teaching at the elementary school in Mountain Lake for 13 years.

She moved back to the family farm in the 1970s after teaching at Mountain Lake. She and her brother lived together and both farmed. She had never married, nor had Donald, who died in 2006 at age 83, according to Jeff and Carla Johnson. Jeff Johnson is her first cousin and farms the family land adjoining what his cousin owned.

Johnson said Betty had eight cousins. At some point, Betty and Donald moved to Montevideo where she had purchased a house. They moved into an apartment there before moving to Dawson, where she lived the last years of her life.

Through almost all of those years, she made a daily drive to the old farm place to feed and visit the farm cats she kept there. "I'd be outside and she'd honk and wave" as she drove to the farm, said Carla Johnson.

"She was such a nice person," said Lynn Lokken, who grew up in a home just a short bicycle ride from Johnson's home.

Like everyone else who knew her, Lokken described Johnson as very frugal. "She didn't want anything," said Lokken.

Betty and her brother rarely, if ever, missed a free meal offered by local elevators and businesses.

"She never threw anything away," said Carla Johnson.

She meant that literally. At the time of her death, Johnson had stuff packed into 42 storage units in the Dawson and Montevideo area. She packed her former farm home with the stuff she collected through the years, and moved grain bins onto the farm place to store yet more of the stuff she kept.

She owned about a dozen vehicles. She would fill each with stuff — like cardboard and newspapers and such — and park it and then buy another vehicle. She usually bought pickup trucks. At one point she purchased a 1980 Thunderbird.

Virtually everything that she had collected had little or no value. The old farm machinery was sold as scrap. The vehicles and household items had deteriorated and had limited value. The assets for the trust fund came largely from the sale of the farmland and the grain she had in storage, according to the trustees.

While she certainly could have enjoyed the fruits of her assets, everyone said Johnson lived a simple life. Both she and her brother loved to talk and visit with people when they attended events or get-togethers, recalled Jeff and Carla Johnson.

Malacek said it was obvious that Johnson enjoyed overseeing the farmland. She kept an eye on markets so as to know when to sell the grain. She was a patron at the Dawson and Montevideo libraries, which likely explains her donations to them.

Many of the recipients are still in the process of determining how best to use the surprise windfalls. Scott Watkins, chair of the board of directors for the Humane Society of Kandiyohi and Meeker Counties, said they are hoping to add a community room in her name to the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter in Willmar. The Society is waiting in hopes construction costs will come down before spending the funds.

The donation to the Lac qui Parle refuge calls on it to use the funds for "feeding pheasants, deer, and geese during the winter or at such other times as it becomes necessary." Gessler said the funds could be used to replace and upgrade equipment used for managing food plots at the refuge. He also hopes the funds could be used toward a ReInvest in Minnesota acquisition that would have a lasting benefit to the wildlife.

At the Mountain Lake Schools, the surprise gift made it possible to purchase gaga ball pits, which have proven incredibly popular with students. It's something the small district would never have been able to purchase otherwise, according to Superintendent Bill Strom.

As a trustee, Citrowske said most of the recipients expressed being overwhelmed by the generosity. Some are looking for ways to honor Betty and her legacy, he added.

"It took everybody by surprise," said co-trustee Malecek of when the recipients were informed. "Everybody I talked to was pleasantly surprised."