- Associated Press - Sunday, September 11, 2016

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - Over the last seven-plus decades, Campustown has seen restaurants, shops and other businesses come and go.

Its two mainstays during that time: Campus Florist and Anne P. Johnston.

The flower shop in the heart of the University of Illinois business district, and Johnston, its sole owner, are marking a unique milestone this year - three quarters of a century in business.

“Anne Johnston started a business in an era where there were not a lot of women-owned companies,” said Laura Weis, president and CEO of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce. “At the very least, she is a role model for young women in our community who have entrepreneurial spirits. She is an example that hard work and dedication can result in success.”

Johnston will celebrate the achievement with employees, customers and friends at a reception at the Champaign Country Club today.

Recently, she sat down with The News-Gazette to talk about her start in the business, some of her experiences over the years and why she never plans to retire.

While her business is 75, the South Side Chicago native has been involved in the floral business for more than eight decades thanks to her mother.

Faye Petersen started out as a school teacher. Sometime after her husband’s death, she and young Anne, her only child, walked into a flower shop and into what would become lifelong careers.

“We were going to the photographer, but he wasn’t open yet,” recalled Johnston, then 10 years old. “It was so cold, so mother stepped into a business to get warm. It was a florist.

“The place was horribly filthy,” Johnston continued, adding her mother told the man behind the counter as much and then demanded a broom. “The man gave her a broom and said, ‘We could use someone like you.’ Mother said, ‘When would you like me to start?’ He said, ‘Tomorrow.’ That’s how it all started.”

Petersen eventually owned and operated two flower shops. Her daughter worked for her. She started off watering plants, cutting stems and tidying up. Soon, she was learning about flowers and how to create beautiful arrangements from her mother’s designer.

“My mother had the best designer in Chicago,” said Johnston, who learned from him and managed to impress a rival florist with her new skills.

“One day, the owner of the first shop my mother bought took us to his mother’s shop. She showed us (an arrangement) her designer had made. I was a smart brat. I said, ‘I can do that,’ so she gave me some flowers. I made it, and she said, ‘That’s better than he does.’ I learned fast.”

In 1941, Johnston moved to Urbana to study floriculture at UI. She pledged Alpha Omicron Pi, but not for the same reason that other young co-eds did.

She planned to open a floral business on campus.

“When I came down to school, I didn’t know anyone,” she said. People back home “told me the best way to get customers was to date in as many fraternities as I could, which I did.”

Johnston launched Campus Florist in a small storefront on South Wright Street later that year. A few months later, she moved it to its present location on Green Street, which was larger and more visible.

“That was back when we used to park on Green Street,” she said, recalling there were only 10,000 students and 250 cars on campus at the time. “You couldn’t have a car unless you lived far away and had to go home, or you had a business.”

One day, Johnston got an unexpected visit from the dean of her department. Her mother, who was visiting that weekend, froze when he walked in.

“He said, ‘It’s all right. I came to tell you your daughter is now where my students will be 10 years from now,’” Johnston recalled. “He told my mother I should go into some field where I could have fun, and I didn’t need what they had to offer me.”

Johnston took his advice and left the floriculture program to focus on her budding business.

While business grew, it wasn’t enough to pay for the higher rent at first. So that summer, she closed the shop to work at a steel mill in Gary, Ind.

“That was enough,” Johnston said with a laugh.

Johnston went out into the smaller, outlying communities around Champaign-Urbana to drum up business. It started growing by word of mouth.

In addition to walk-in and phone-in customers, Campus Florist became a go-to shop for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, weddings, funerals and special events on and off campus.

“We still cover all of those bases today,” said Phyllis Valentine, who started working for Johnston in 1979 and now serves as the main designer - a job Johnston relinquished about 1½ years ago. “We’ve gained some loyal customers over the years.”

She recalled a man who sends his wife an azalea every year at Christmastime, one who always sends a red and white arrangement to funerals and one from Monticello, who always requested that his arrangements be made by Johnston’s mother, who worked with her daughter in the Champaign store during World War II. Later, Johnston took over.

“He was a good customer until he died,” Johnston said.

Johnston met her husband of 30 years when he stopped by the shop one day. He wasn’t looking for flowers.

Seely Johnston - the longtime owner of Johnston’s Sports in Champaign - was running for the Champaign city council, and he wanted her vote.

“He talked for half an hour,” recalled Johnston, who listened patiently. “When he finished talking, I said, ‘Well, that’s nice, but I can’t vote for you. I live in Urbana.’”

Sometime later, the Campustown merchants had a disagreement with the city. The city wanted to take down the street lights on Green Street, much to the merchants’ objection.

“I called him and said, ‘What are we going to do?’” Johnston said of the recently-elected council member. “Seely was always for the underdog. He said, ‘Come to the meeting and don’t open your mouth until I ask you a question.’ This went on for two years, so I saw him every two weeks. He got sick one time, so I sent him some crackers and cheese. Then he called me. That’s how it started.”

The two dated for five years and married on July 18, 1971. It was a happy union.

“I had my business, and he had his, so there was no arguing,” Johnston said with a smile.

The couple never had any children together, but Seely Johnston, a widower, had two children from his first marriage. Anne Johnston remains close to her step-daughter, Jan Glick, who lives in Kansas.

The couple enjoyed traveling together throughout the U.S. and Europe and vacationing at their condo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

And they were both civic-minded. Johnston was involved with the Campus Businessmen’s Association, serving as president for two years and putting out the newsletter for 25. In addition to serving on the council, her husband supported Champaign Central High School, his alma mater; Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul; and other organizations.

He helped charter the Exchange Club of Champaign and was active until his death in 2001. Both die-hard Illini fans, they were also involved in the Illini Rebounders and Quarterback Club and attended games when they could.

Johnston still belongs to those organizations, but admits she hasn’t been able to attend meetings or games for a few years. While that may be true, club officials said she has continued to provide them with beautiful flower arrangements, corsages and plants for raffles for meetings and luncheons.

“She loves to give flowers for any occasion,” said Barb Barker, the administrator and past president of the men’s basketball team’s booster club. “If there was an event coming up that I forgot to let her know about, she would call up and say, ‘I’m going to do this.’

“It means so much to us, but it also means a lot to her to stay active and involved,” Barker said, adding the organization made Johnston a lifetime member a few years back.

“She’s been a valuable member of our organization for about 20 years,” said Tom Williams, president of the Exchange Club, which works to prevent child abuse.

Williams said he felt a connection to Johnston because his dad worked in the floral business for 36 years, and he always appreciated her talent and generosity. He also admires her spirit and perseverance.

“How many businesses can you name that have lasted 75 years? And for her to be as active as she is. She still goes into work every day. I think that’s remarkable.”

Early on, the business survived two fires. The first started in a corner drugstore and spread through the row of buildings, which didn’t have fire walls, and the second started on the upper level of her store. Illini Media Co. employees were using the room to put together the Illio Yearbook.

“There was a chaise lounge,” Johnston explained. “Someone had a cigarette, and it went up in flames. We ended up in the basement.”

Then in the early 1970s, student protesters smashed her plate-glass windows. She said local students had been doing that to other businesses, but spared hers because one of the leaders was someone who came in at chatted with her occasionally.

“This crowd came down from Chicago,” she recalled, of the kids who vandalized her shop. “They had great big chains, and they broke every window. The (local leader) told them not to break ours, but they didn’t care. He came in the next day and said he was terribly sorry, but they didn’t have any money to fix them.”

By far the most traumatic experience came in 1997 when Johnston was waiting for her husband to pick her up for dinner to celebrate their 26th anniversary. A man entered the store, beat her severely and stole the money from the cash register and her purse and personal belongings.

Johnston, who was alone, managed to phone her husband right before the attack.

“I said, ‘Come quick, come quick!’ said Johnston, who was found unconscious and lying on the floor.

“I was a mess,” said Johnston, who woke up from a coma about a week later. She suffered head injuries and a broken thumb and still bears a faded scar on her right forehead.

Her injuries were so severe that some doctors worried that she wouldn’t pull through. About a month after she left the hospital, she and her husband were eating lunch at Carmen’s when they saw one of them and much to their surprise, heard him say she was dead.

“The waitress looked at him and said, ‘No she’s not. She’s right there,’” Johnston recalled with amusement.

Johnston did have to undergo months of intensive therapy. Valentine ran the shop during that time.

“It’s a time I wouldn’t want to relive again,” Johnston said, adding her attacker was never caught despite a reward that was offered by then-Champaign Mayor Dannel McCollom.

She added she was overwhelmed by McCollom’s gesture and the support she received from the community and beyond.

“I have two books that thick of cards that people sent me,” she said, holding her hands about 10 inches apart. “Some of the people, I didn’t know. I think the prayers that everybody said are the reasons I came through.”

While the attack prompted Johnston to put some safety measures in place, she never once considering closing the business or stepping away. The same held true after her husband’s death four years later.

She still goes into the shop - filled with green plants, colorful flower arrangements in orange and blue vases and Illini gift items - at 10 a.m. and works until 5 p.m. six days a week, except in summertime when it closes an hour earlier. She answers the phone, takes orders and does all of the bookkeeping.

She rather likes that routine and has no plans on changing it up.

“I’m not into women’s groups, and I don’t play bridge or mahjong,” she said. “Most importantly, I still enjoy it. I enjoy my customers and my employees.”

If Johnston ever mentioned the “R” word, Valentine and the rest of her small, close-knit staff and those who know her joked that they would take her temperature.

“The store is what keeps her going,” Valentine said. “And I think being on campus and being around all of the students, who have come in and told us their stories or worked for us over the years, has kept her young.”

“Anne Johnston is Campus Florist,” added her longtime friend, Hope Eastin. “She’s so dedicated and just a very hard worker. That her business is celebrating its 75th anniversary is a testament to that.”

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Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, https://bit.ly/2c0hcno

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Information from: The News-Gazette, https://www.news-gazette.com

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