For nearly a century, Phyllis Barnes Johnson called Eagle home
‘She was the last one of her immediate family left to protect what her parents had worked so hard for’
For decades the presence of a petite, white-haired lady, standing ramrod straight with her hand over her heart on the front porch of her home at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Street, marked the beginning of the Flight Days Parade.
That image of Phyllis Barnes Johnson reveals a great deal about the woman — her longtime presence in the community, her commitment to her core values, her impeccable grooming, her quiet but profound presence. It is a fitting way to remember a woman who spent most of her 96 years in the Eagle community.
Phyllis passed away on Jan. 16, a month after celebrating her 96th birthday. She was born Dec. 14, 1924, in a 14-foot-by-14-foot dirt-floor cabin located on her mother’s homestead four miles north of Eagle.
“There was no doctor present. The doctor didn’t come from town until after she was born,” recalled her daughter Alexis Kensinger. “It had to have been so cold up there in mid-December.”
But Phyllis was a healthy 12.5-pound baby who rounded out the Barnes family — parents Guy and Monica Barnes and brothers Boyd and Darrell. She spent her first two summers at the family homestead, a 640-acre property obtained through the Homestead Act. The remainder of the year the family lived at a cabin near her birthplace.
The Barnes family moved closer to Eagle when Phyllis was 2 so the children could attend school. They took up residence at a ranch property located along the Eagle River, just north of town. The remains of the Barnes residence is still standing, located on the land between downtown Eagle and the Eagle River Park.
Eagle in the old days
Kensinger said her mother enjoyed her upbringing in small town Eagle.
“She said that people were close and were there each other,” Kensinger said.
There was a thriving barter system in those early days of Eagle. Farmers would trade their produce for other groceries, necessities, and treats. Phyllis loved it when her father would come home from town and pull out a piece of candy he had hidden for her and her brothers.
“They were subsistence farmers for the most part,” Kensinger said. The family ate the vegetables they grew and the fish they caught in the stretch of the Eagle River that meandered through the farm. They also raised sheep and cattle as food sources.
Phyllis completed both grade school and high school in Eagle, and along the way, she discovered her vocation. “Her favorite teacher was her first-grade teacher Isobel McCauley Nesthouse,” said Kensinger. “She loved and admired Mrs. Nesthouse so much that she decided she wanted to be a teacher like her.”
After graduating from Eagle High School, she attended Mesa College. “She said she had no idea how her parents managed to afford to send her to college,” Kensinger said. Phyllis then transferred to Colorado Teachers College (now the University of Northern Colorado) in 1943. Like many people of her generation, World War II played a pivotal role in what happened next.
In her self-authored obituary, Phyllis wrote: “Many teachers were leaving education to take better-paying jobs in defense plants.” In the spring of 1944, even though she was still a student herself, Phyllis was offered a teaching position in Lance Creek, Wyoming.
“At 19 years old, she went out to the oil fields in Lance Creek and began teaching,” Kensinger said. “She said her dad struggled with her being that far away.” He was also concerned about his daughter living in such a rough area. “It was quite different from what she was used to,” Kensinger said.
Phyllis taught two terms in Wyoming. In the spring of 1946, she accepted an offer to teach in Steamboat Springs. That presented another challenge. “She accepted the offer and soon learned that she should be teaching 42 sixth graders in a room where just seeing the blackboard was challenging due to the number of pupils,” Phyllis wrote.
After one year in Steamboat, she took a job teaching in Gilman. It was a step up for several reasons, including its proximity to home and its proximity to a certain young man.
Phyllis and Jack Johnson met at a dance in Eagle in the summer of 1946. “I remember her saying that when Dad asked her to dance, he was shaking like a leaf,” Kensinger said.
A native of Minturn and a World War II veteran, Jack courted Phyllis for two years. “Once while they were dating, they hiked up to Hanging Lake, dad jumped in and swam across the lake to impress my mom. I asked her if that worked, and she said she thought he was a darned fool.”
She overcame that impression because the couple married on June 20, 1948. Jack worked as a surveyor at the New Jersey Zinc Mine in Gilman and Phyllis eventually gave up teaching to raise their children — Michael, Scott, and Alexis.
In 1963 the Johnson family moved to their home in Eagle. In addition to working at the mine and then owning J&K Surveying, Jack served as a volunteer fireman, fire chief, and in his later years, he was Eagle County surveyor and emergency management director. After their children were in school, Phyllis worked for several years at Koonce’s Hometown Supply/Phillips 66 and later for Eagle County District Court.
“My mom was a hard worker. She was a busy person raising a family, keeping an immaculate home, working part-time, and taking care of others in the community,” Kensinger said.
But when the weekend hit, Phyllis’ favorite journey was to travel back in time to her family homestead 12 miles north of town.
Her little piece of paradise
“Almost every weekend, weather permitting, we would pile in the back of dad’s truck and go up to our cabin on Castle for a picnic,” Kensinger said. “That was my mom’s favorite place. She loved seeing the wildflowers.”
Phyllis’ ties to her family’s land were a lifelong touchstone. But the land itself did not go untouched.
In the 1970s, Interstate 70 was built through the Eagle Valley. The highway route runs right through the Barnes ranch.
“It was something that never felt great. It took out the most beautiful part of the property,” Kensinger said. “The state used eminent domain to acquire the property and it was difficult for our family to lose that land.”
She recalled how the I-70 construction destroyed a grove of willows where the family loved to fish. “Our land on the banks of the river was so beautiful then,” Kensinger said.
Phyllis found herself embroiled in another property dispute four years ago. When the town of Eagle began development of its river park on ground that used to be the parking lot for the Eagle County Fairgrounds, a group of former town officials approached Phyllis to see if she would sell her part of that parking lot and a strip of land on the north side of the river.
She told them she wasn’t interested in selling, but town officials continued to push for a sale. Eventually, Phyllis decided to put the matter to rest by showing up at an Eagle Town Board meeting to state her position firmly.
“If you are asked if you want to sell something and you say no, people should take that as a no,” Phyllis told the board. “You know, when you own land, I don’t think you should be continuously asked to sell. When you say no, you should be left alone.”
After being addressed by the 92-year-old citizen, the town stopped asking.
“That incident says a lot about her character,” Kensinger said. “It was instilled in her to respect the land and take care of that property. She was the last one of her immediate family left to protect what her parents had worked so hard for.”
The situation was also about respect, Kensinger added. “Part of her belief in life was not to invade other people’s privacy, and she thought other people should respect that as well.”
Not so stern
Throughout her life, Phyllis was an avid reader, dedicated Denver Broncos fan, and talented baker.
“My dad didn’t want a birthday cake; he wanted my mom’s cream puffs. They were delicious,” Kensinger said.
Phyllis watched the news every day and kept up with current events. Her passion for education influenced her daughter and Kensinger also became an educator and eventually earned a Ph.D.
“It was a proud day when I received my doctorate,” Kensinger said. “And she was there. The dedication in my dissertation is to my mom. She inspired me with the love of her students and her desire to help them learn regardless of their circumstances.”
Growing up, Kensinger said her friends often thought her mom was stern, but as she grew older, Phyllis lightened up a bit.
“As an older woman, she was not as stressed. She was hilarious and those were the great things we were able to see in those later years of her life.”
Her family was a source of fun and delight, as she demonstrated to the world in 2017 when she was the center of a prize-winning submission on “America’s Funniest Videos.”
The video shows Kensinger’s son making the surprise announcement that he and his wife were expecting their first child. Everyone at the dinner table erupts in cheers and dancing, but Phyllis didn’t initially hear the news. Her reaction when she did, complete with her joyful exclamation, “I’m going to be a great-grandma!” was priceless.
The family traveled to Los Angles for the show filming and Phyllis made her first trip by airplane.
“They met us at the airport with a black SUV and handed us an envelope of cash for expenses,” Kensinger said. The family’s video won the initial $10,000 competition and the group traveled back to LA for the $100,000 grand prize show. They didn’t take home the big money, but the banter between Phyllis and show host Tom Bergeron was television gold.
“A lot of people, to this day, ask ‘Was your family on America’s Funniest Videos? I think I saw you on the show’” Kensinger said. “My mom said, ‘I never thought I would be a celebrity.’”
Life well lived
Kensinger said she misses her daily conversations with her mom. They talked about family, books, sports, current events, and her concerns. “Mom had a heart for the children of the world and those who struggled. She regularly donated to our military heroes, orphaned, or abused children, reading programs for children, and St. Jude’s Hospital to name a few.”
“She, honestly, read a book a week. I had a hard time keeping up with her,” Kensinger said. “Her mind was incredible.”
“I miss her telling me about family history and it seemed that every time she talked about it, she told me something that I had never heard before,” Kensinger continued. “I loved seeing her joy in her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She was all about family and enjoyed the small things in life.”
Small things like standing tall and watching the American flag at the start of a parade in Eagle. Flight Days won’t be quite the same without her presence at its start this year.
The family plans to host a celebration of Phyllis’ life later this year, dependent on COVID-19 stipulations. Her obituary can be viewed at vaildaily.com.