Time hasn't mellowed Irene Johnson.
Nearly 20 years after Brainerd Water and Light Superintendent Elmer Lalli flicked a switch to fluoridate Brainerd's water on Feb. 7, 1980, the mention of an old foe's name still summons up bitterness.
"Boy, that old goat," she said from her nursing home bed when a particular judge's name was recalled. "I hope he had gallstones."
Beset with osteoporosis, muscular ailments and poor vision, she has lived at Woodland Acres in Brainerd for about a year.
"My spine is a mess," the Montana native said, succinctly summing up her lack of mobility.
For years after the fluoride battle was lost the leader of Minnesotans Opposed to Forced Fluoridation hauled her drinking water from Brainerd's unfluoridated tap, so she wouldn't have to drink the chemical substance she fought so hard to keep out of the city's water supply. The tap was a last-ditch concession won by her anti-fluoride forces. It was all they had to show from years of fighting the state mandate.
The nearly 30-year fight, which gained Johnson statewide fame and even led to an interview on NBC's "Today" show, deeply divided the community.
In October of 1979, five Brainerd City Council members were found to be in contempt of court and ordered to pay fines of $250 a day for not complying with a 1967 state law mandating fluoridation in cities of a certain population. The five council members were James Wallin, Mary Koep, James Brown, Milli Michaelis and Don O'Brien. Two other aldermen, Denny Martin and Frank Murray, took the position the city should obey the state law.
Brainerd Water and Light Superintendent Elmer Lalli flicks the switch to fluoridate Brainerd's water supply on Feb. 7, 1980, as Water and Light Board President Leonard Peterson looks on. (Dispatch File Photo by Steve Kohls)
It was only after five of its members were found in contempt of court that the council caved in to pressure from the state and the court system. On Feb. 7, 1980, Lalli flicked the switch to fluoridate in front of a horde of news photographers.
The long fight was over. In spite of two city referendums (one in the early 1960s and one in 1974) that rejected fluoride, the city's drinking water was finally fluoridated.
" I just felt like I had been to a hanging," Johnson said. "That was a sad blow for freedom of choice."
Now in her 80s, Johnson eventually was unable to haul her own water and now has to drink the fluoride she fought so hard against.
"Every time I drink it I get mad," she said.
Even the Montana sweatshirt Johnson wore in her nursing home bed boasted a defiant message that seemed to characterize her defiant spirit.
"Here in our homeland, God, guts and guns keep us free," it read.
She grew up on a Montana ranch and met her husband, Nordahl Johnson, near an air base near Great Falls, Mont. She came to Minnesota with him in 1946.
"It's been a long, bitter fight," she reflected last week of the fluoride battle. "It made me wish I never came here. I was bitter. I thought I could lick it.
"I just couldn't convince myself that you couldn't win when the people have spoken. I'm a person that don't give up very easy but I sure got my ears pinned back," Johnson said. "I still think I was right."
So does at least one of her longtime colleagues in the fight against fluoride. Elaine Jensen Chesley fought with Johnson for years to keep fluoride out of Brainerd's water. Last week she expressed her admiration for MOFF's leader at a Central Lakes College class on community awareness and activism.
"I've never seen anyone display as much guts as Mrs. Johnson displayed all those years," Chesley said. "Any time you mention fluoride she's right there, ready to go. I'm proud to be her friend."
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