“My whole life has been children. I had a nursery school for 16 years and those were the best years of my life,” said Barbara Johnson.
“I lived on Ocean Avenue, and when I began to look at the wonderful huge rooms that I had in my house that were dormant over the winter, I decided to open a nursery school in my home. I started with eight children and before long, I had 57 between the ages of three and six. It became known as The Blackberry Nursery School,” she said.
“The school was actually named by my son, Eric. The children were outside playing and they found wild blackberries. When I came out to see what the commotion was about, I was somewhat shocked. Eric’s face and clothing were blue. He was covered with the juice from eating the blackberries. I had to put him in the shower to clean him up! He was such a mess!” recalled Johnson. “He was so excited about the blackberries that he told me I should call the whole place, the house and school, ‘The Blackberry.’ I told him it was a wonderful name, and the rest is history,” she added with a smile.
Johnson also had four children of her own: Charles, Christopher, Eric, and Kelly.
“I also ran a bed and breakfast. There were 13 bedrooms in the house, so I rented out nine of them to people who would come out for the summer. It was another happy time in my life. I enjoyed the guests and spending time with my children, our four dogs, and my mother and father.”
Before she started the Blackberry Nursery School, she worked at the Neighborhood House for five years. After The Neighborhood House, and with a degree in child psychology, theater, and teaching, Johnson had a nursery school at Ashawagh Hall for two years.
“My mother was June Hess Kelly and was an only child. She was a soprano and performed ‘Aida’ and ‘Tosca’ at the Metropolitan Opera. My grandfather was Harry Bellas Hess. He was married to Mabel Bingham Hess,” she recalled. “They lived in Huntington at ‘The Cedars,’ and he was the founder of the National Bellas Hess Company,” said Johnson. Based in Greenwich Village, it was a direct-to-consumer catalog retailer.”
The family home, Shore Quarters, was on Jeffreys Lane in East Hampton. “I have many family stories I could tell,” Johnson said, “but I especially remember the one about my grandfather Aquin Sarsfield Kelly. He was originally born in Ireland and came to the United States and had a brilliant career as a doctor for many years. In May of 1937, he was driving home from Manhattan and saw the Hindenburg crash into the middle of a field. He pulled his car over and grabbed his doctor bag and ran across the field and was there for two hours helping people, and he followed many of them to the hospital. He said he did what he had to do. He was kind,” Johnson said proudly.
In 1953, Johnson married Robert Schenck. Soon afterwards he was placed into military service and was sent to Korea to fight in the war. He was gone for three years. During his absence, Johnson went to work at the St. Barnabas House in the Bowery, working with children who were orphaned or abandoned, until her husband returned from the war. After her marriage to Schenck, she married Christian Johnson, a local troubadour and the first broadcaster on WLNG’s “Swap and Shop” show many years ago.
“I love to act,” Johnson revealed. “I worked for many years in the summers at Guild Hall. I also did three summers in Maine at The Ogunquit Playhouse. I’ve worked alongside Hugh King in the Community Theater and did theater in Bridgehampton as well. I also did stage managing. My favorite play was ‘The Little Foxes,’” recalled Johnson. “It was a 1939 play by Lillian Hellman.”
Now living in a historic home built in 1783 as the Riding Club, Johnson is surrounded with many family heirlooms, including a dining room table handmade by her father, a self-made woodworker. The floorboards in her home were acquired from wood that had washed up on shore from shipwrecks. “During those times, the men would go down to the beach and collect the wood that washed up and use it to build their homes,” said Johnson. “The floors in this house belonged to a ship that probably sank in a storm.”
Born in New York City in 1933, Johnson is the oldest of five children. “I have three sisters, Maureen, Carolyn, and Linda and one brother, Tommy,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a marvelous life and loved almost every moment of it! I now have 12 grandchildren. As I said before, I’ve always been surrounded by children. They’ve been my life. I have a motto. It comes from a poem but it’s something I’ve always lived by: ‘And by your children you are taught.’ You can learn so much from children if you just listen.”