Mardell Johnson

Mardell Johnson

Mardell Johnson

Belle Plaine

Mardell Johnson, 86, died at home on Saturday, July 1, 2023, surrounded by her husband and children.

A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, July 5, at First Lutheran Church in Belle Plaine, where the family will greet friends from 10 to 11 a.m. prior to the service. Burial will be at Oak Hill Cemetery, Belle Plaine. Memorials may be made in Mardell’s name to the Belle Plaine Ambulance or the First Lutherans Women in Mission. Online condolences can be made to the family at

Born on Oct. 17, 1936, to Merwin and Henrietta Shadewald, Mardell moved to Belle Plaine as a sixth grader, when her father opened a Gambles hardware supply store on Main Street. Not long after, the school newspaper’s Snooper gossip column revealed Mardell had “caught the eye” of eighth grader Dean Johnson. In high school the two became sweethearts, and it was not unusual to find Dean currying favor by chauffeuring Mardell and her girlfriends around town in his car dealer dad’s 1951 Plymouth Hardtop.

Following high school graduation in 1954, Mardell attended the University of Iowa, graduating with highest honors (Phi Beta Kappa). She performed with the University’s Scottish Highlanders, an all-women group of pipers, drummers and dancers. Mardell danced on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 (meeting actress Julie Andrews in her show debut); sailed to Britain on the Queen Mary for a European tour; and marched at the 1957 Rose Bowl (which No. 3 ranked Hawkeyes won!).

It was at the University of Iowa where Mardell and Dean met up again. They were married at First Lutheran on Aug. 17, 1958. Dean found he was mostly fond of following Mardell’s directions and spent the next six decades refining the skill. In the early days, they moved frequently with Dean’s job, from Iowa to South Dakota to Minnesota to Texas. They eventually settled back in Belle Plaine, and with Dean’s brother, David, operated Raleigh Johnson Motor Co., the family business dating back to 1937. Mardell was Controller for Johnson Motors until the couple retired and sold the business.

Having graduated from college with a degree in sociology, Mardell also worked for many years as a social worker at nursing homes in Belle Plaine and Keystone, where she was a champion for the independence, dignity and rights of the elderly. Many residents transitioned back to independent living due to her advocacy.

Mardell was a member of First Lutheran in Belle Plaine for decades and a stalwart of the Women in Mission. Her Tuesday night Bible Study was especially important to her. She was a member of PEO, and also immensely enjoyed other local women’s groups and community theater.

Mardell was strong, faith filled and compassionate. She had a knack for a clever rhyme. She loved flowers and was teased that an extra room was needed just to store all the dried twigs and wreaths. She was utterly devoted to her own mother, who lived until just shy of her 100th birthday.

If her teenagers came home late at night, Mardell was up waiting. She claimed the best talks occurred in these wee hours. If she suggested sitting down for “a little chat,” you knew you were in for some stern, motherly advice. She was usually right. She could remove your stitches without going to the doctor. You learned it was a mistake to ask her a riddle because she would never “give in”, but insisted on figuring it out.

Mardell loved a good story, whether a novel, biography or old movie enjoyed with a granddaughter. But the best were her own – and none more popular than her bedtime “spooky stories.” More often than not, grandkids too scared to sleep would pile into Grandma’s bed for the night.

Mardell and Dean were married nearly 65 years. They were dancing partners, roller skating partners, traveling partners, business partners, even debating partners (though not always on the same side). They were mutual caregivers through several illnesses, including the cancer and chemotherapy that eventually would diminish her body but not her brain, heart or will. Diagnosed at 78, she was the oldest woman in Iowa at the time to survive the particular surgery and treatment – and blessed with remission twice. Mardell’s determination and Norwegian grit were evident even in her final hours. Her children and grandchildren are better for the DNA.

Mardell is survived by her husband, Dean; her three children, Brad (Jennifer) Johnson of Little Rock, Ark.; Boyd (Kim) Johnson of Wichita, Kan.; and Elizabeth (Brad) Heying of Dubuque, Iowa; eight grandchildren, Rick, Amanda and Matt (Grace) Johnson, Jacob (Cynthia) and Jarod (Lexi) Johnson; and Carly, Audrey and Luke Heying; and three step-grandchildren, Shelby (Matt) Ward, Kelsey and Lindsey Reddick. She is also survived by two special cousins, Charlotte (Craig) McManus of Davenport, Iowa, and Jean (Wes) Wistrom of Estero, Fla.

She was preceded in death by her father in 1963 and mother in 2004.

The family would like to recognize and thank special friends Fran Magdefrau, and Marilyn and Dick Wells, as well as all the friends and family who offered prayers, visited, and brought food during her illness, including Pastor Duncan and the members of First Lutheran. Thank you also to the special caregivers from Essence of Life Hospice.

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