AMERICAN FORK, UTAH
Vibrant, energetic and dialed-in with technology, Betty Liddell Johnson is an anomaly: At 92-years-old and still serving as ward Primary pianist, she is lively and maintains a schedule to rival someone decades younger.
She keeps weekly hair and lunch appointments, shops while she is out, plans and presents a monthly lesson for Daughters of Utah Pioneers and makes a new quilt for every child, grandchild and great-grandchild in her family who is born or married, (quite a feat considering she quilts the “old fashioned way” — without a sewing machine — and has five children, 34 grandchildren and more than 50 great-grandchildren). Good luck getting a hold of her during a BYU football game – this avid fan has guests over for each game and keeps a collection of toys for kids not interested in football.
“She’s like the energizer bunny,” said Kim Matthews, ward member and former neighbor who has known Sister Johnson for almost 20 years.
Fiercely independent, Sister Johnson still manages to play the piano for the Primary as often as possible. During weeks when she is not feeling up to playing, Sister Johnson can still be found on the back row of the Primary room.
“I want to be doing something because it keeps me going. Some Sundays it would be so easy to stay home,” Sister Johnson said.
Her favorite part of serving in the Church is being with the children, with whom she has a special relationship.
This love for children is evident, from the seemingly unending supply of candy on the front table in her home, to her willingness to talk with and listen to the Primary children, many of whom call her Grandma Betty and give her hugs on their way out.
“She is just this full-of-life, spunky little grandma,” said Michelle Powell, who served as Primary chorister for three years alongside Sister Johnson, the pianist.
“She’s not content to just be old,” Sister Powell said. “Even though she’s in her 90s she wants to be active and busy and involved in people’s lives.”
When Sister Powell would substitute a song last minute, Sister Johnson would not miss a beat – because she had most of the songs memorized, she was able to play right along.
One of Sister Johnson’s defining traits is her optimism, a trait developed in her youth.
“Every time I talk to her or see her, she’s smiling,” Sister Matthews said. “Years after Betty’s gone, that’s what I will remember about her.”
She is a self-declared happy person and has been described as a magnet for those around her.
She realized that sadness comes without effort and happiness is a choice. She realized the same amount of work goes into maintaining either lifestyle.
“I decided I’m going to be happy in life and I don’t dwell on the unhappiness,” she said. “Life’s too short to be unhappy and I am a happy person.”
When she was nine-years-old she learned to play the piano and took exactly 26 lessons. She is humble about her talents and acknowledges that what has helped her develop her talents most has been playing the piano in Primary. After transposing a song for the Primary on the spot, a task that does not ordinarily come to her easily, she realized the divine help that had been given. Another time while playing prelude, she was having difficulty with playing the music. She was able to improvise a lovely melody that helped the senior Primary come in reverently on a day the stake Primary president was visiting. She did not take credit, however, because she realized the Lord was working through her.
“I have so many blessings that I’ve received from things like this,” she said.
First called as Primary pianist in 1955, Sister Johnson has served off and on in this capacity ever since, in addition to callings in stake and ward Relief Societies, and as ward chorister and ward organist. She cannot see the notes some of the time because of her failing sight, so she is learning improvisations to allow her to continue to serve.
Her service in the Church has helped her develop talents she had not been aware of and has made her and the people around her happy, she said. Even with her failing vision, she is grateful for the friends she has made and the opportunities that have been given her. She chooses to see what is good in her life and is upbeat about the fact that she can still see well enough to read the scriptures. Because of this attitude, she has been able to be a positive example for those around her.
“It’s the little things that count in life,” Sister Johnson said.