Mary Elizabeth (Johnson) McConnell came to be in a rural Ozarks world that today is more commonly found in history books than memories. Nine decades after that life began in a small, shingle-sided house, she worked for education, independence, business success, travel and family – all of which she achieved before her death on Jan. 22. She was 91 years old.
Mary was the only child born to Willie and Martha (Hewett) Johnson, farmers on a patch of land near a community known as Bracken in rural Webster County. Her arrival on March 28, 1932 was typically Ozarks in that day and age, but with a twist: Family lore recounts that the country doctor alternated his care of Mary’s laboring mother with hunting in the nearby woods.
Her childhood had few modern conveniences. The house had no electricity, running water or telephone. Milk was stored in a spring. Those early years were filled with weekly trips to town, attending church, baptizing cats in the aforementioned spring, and walking more than a mile to the one-room Black Oak School, where she went through the eighth grade.
Mary then attended Marshfield High School, where she graduated in 1949. It was a significant moment, as she wasn’t sure if her father would even allow her to attend high school in the first place. He himself only had an elementary education.
Not only did she accomplish that goal, however, but she went even further:
“Mary is enrolling as a student at SMS (today's Missouri State University) in Springfield the last of the week,” noted the Bracken newspaper columnist in the Marshfield Mail just days after her graduation.
In Springfield, the young college student basically lived on bacon (cooked on a hot plate in her rented room, and a food which she always loved) and alternated her studies with terms of teaching. Back then, you didn’t necessarily need a degree to teach, a reality that led her back to one-room schools – including Black Oak – before accepting a job in Lockwood.
It was there where she met Ronald McConnell, a young insurance agent who hailed from nearby Greenfield. The couple wed in August 1954, and had two children: James Sidney “Sid” and Mary Helen.
Mary ultimately shifted from teaching to working with Ronald at the couple’s Shelter Insurance agency. Their work was the focus of their life, and together, they became two of the company’s most successful agents. Their commitment resulted in winning trips to more than 15 destinations, taking Mary to locations all over the world and far from the rural dirt path where she began.
Even after Ronald’s death in 2007, Mary continued running the agency for eight years longer — and qualifying for a conference trip all on her own to Hawaii.
She retired in 2014, ending the agency’s nearly 70-year-long run, all of which was under McConnell leadership.
Those aren’t the only facts, however, that defined Mary’s life.
She was a Christian. Mary was saved at an early age and baptized in the river down the road from the Black Oak Freewill Baptist Church. As an adult, she long attended Greenfield Christian Church, where she served as a Sunday School teacher.
Mary was a talented cook and baker. She was a wonderful textile artist, and made many quilts as well as intricately crocheted, latch-hooked, and stitched creations. It’s doubtful any pattern was too challenging for her exemplary skill: Mary sewed many complicated costumes for her son’s participation in the Salute to America Singers, a 4-H-tied group that sang across the world during the United States' bicentennial.
That creativity, however, also spoke to her hardscrabble, can-do attitude. Just one example: Determined that the family house would have indoor plumbing after the birth of her first child, she hand-dug the ground to place the lines.
She was adventurous, and exploring random roads was a form of recreation. On one of the early Shelter trips, her husband was concerned about flying for the first time. He bought extra life insurance from a vending machine; she couldn’t wait to board the plane.
Ultimately, however, time with her family was one of the most important things in her life.
Mary attended countless events for her children and grandchildren, and made family vacations possible, which today live on as treasured memories.
Just as they often went to Greenfield, she frequently traveled to Webster County for family dinners at the same house where she grew up, and where those descendants still live.
While her family is saddened by her passing, they are grateful for the many years they got to share with her, and the joy she brought into their lives.
Mary was preceded in death by her parents and husband. She is survived by her son Sid, his wife, Kathy, and their daughters, Kaitlyn, Jami and Chelsea of Missouri; her daughter, Mary Helen Goodwin and her husband, Greg, and their two daughters, Jenna Karli and Kelsey, all of Florida; and a host of other relatives and friends.
Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. on Friday, January 26, 2024, at the First Christian Church of Greenfield. Burial follows in Greenfield Cemetery. The family will receive friends on Friday at 1 p.m. until service time at the church. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the First Christian Church of Greenfield. Online condolences may be shared at www.greenfieldfuneralchapel.com. Services were under the care of Greenfield Funeral Chapel.
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