What a friend we have …


January 16, 1926 -November 28, 2016

img_20150927_114401422_hdrFor the last 26 months, it has been my joy and pleasure to begin many of my days having breakfast with my mother-in-law, Shirley. Shirley and Grant moved in with us in October 2014, due to her failing health.

Today she a far better place to live: A house with many mansions in heaven.

It would be simple to fill up a blog just with wonderful adjectives describing Shirley.

Caring. Nurturing. Kind. Considerate. Cheerful. Thoughtful. Understanding. Loving. They would all be correct, yet all so inadequate.

Shirley loved life. She was 63 when we met in 1989, and in the 27 years since then we cherished so many wonderful family times together. We attended more than a dozen Kerr Bash family gatherings. Kathy and I traveled together with her and husband Grant (and sometimes our son Tyler) to Florida, and to Texas, and to Alaska. We played dominoes in an RV home along the Chena River in Fairbanks one summer. We attended Cleveland baseball games with her mother-in-law, Edna Johnson, who was an avid Indians fan.

shirley-2We’ve been to baptisms, more than a few family weddings and – more recently – family funerals as Shirley’s older sisters passed away, one at a time. Just two month ago we visited Titusville, Pa., for the funeral of her sister Barbara Beers. Little did we know that it would be Shirley’s last time there.

Wife. Mother of three. Grandmother of nine. Great-grandmother of two (so far).  And still, words don’t really describe Shirley’s life. Her reach. Her impact.

Shirley was a mainstay at First United Methodist Church in Ashtabula for many decades. She sang in the choir there. She worked as a secretary. She helped out with Vacation Bible School. She was an integral part of the women’s group and the hospitality committee there. A post-funeral gathering or any social event at First UMC was not complete without one of Shirley’s desserts on the table. It might have been pineapple whipped cream cake (nicknamed Shirley cake) or her pretzel salad. Whatever she made, it was certain to disappear long before the reception ended.

shirley-4I initiated having breakfasts with Shirley. I wanted to make certain she was taking her medicines and getting a good meal to start the day. In turn, she made sure her husband of 64-plus years, Grant, got his medications when he awakened. The two have been married since 1952. They lived in a house on West 13th Street in Ashtabula for nearly 60 years. There was boundless love in that place as Shirley took on the primary responsibility for raising Kirk, Kathy, and Keith.

What I received from Shirley Kerr Johnson in her time living with Kathy and me (and later Tyler as well) goes far beyond words. She has a boundless optimism about the future. She cherished every new picture of her great-grandchildren, and every conversation with a grandchild. She gave Kathy and me advice, gently and lovingly.  “You work too hard,” she told me. Today, I don’t think I’ll ever take a walk in a park or a long respite from academia without recalling her words.

Still, this doesn’t adequately describe Shirley Kerr Johnson, or her impact on the lives of those she touched.

Shirley is the most beautiful of reflectors.

shirley-3She mirrors love – Christ’s love – in much of her interactions with others. She always saw the good side of every situation. She would encourage, never admonish. She chose kindness over harshness. She spoke caring words, positive words, and always had an empathetic attitude toward others. You wanted to be with Shirley, around Shirley, because she helped you feel better about your life, your future.

As Shirley’s health deteriorated in the last month, a chapter of the Bible which has provided me with a lot of comfort and strength is Psalm 73.  Verse 26 reads, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Shirley’s flesh and her heart failed here on earth, but God is showing His love through Shirley – even in her last days.

On Friday, Pastor Chris Bell of First UMC in Ashtabula and a member of the church choir, Linda Downing, drove 75 miles each way to visit with Shirley. We concluded with family member in a circle, holding hands, surrounding Shirley in her hospice bed. Pastor Chris asked Shirley to select a song for us to sing. She chose, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.”

shirley-5What a selection! Joseph Scirven wrote this song, first as a poem in 1855 for his mother. He was living in Canada, and sent it to comfort his mother who was then in Ireland. The final words of the third verse of this hymn are: In His arms He’ll take and shield thee. Thou wilt find a solace there.

Shirley – today you are in His arms. We love you and will miss you, but we know you are free from pain and in an infinitely better place, and a place where we can all join you one day.

11 Responses to What a friend we have …

  1. Terry Evitts says:

    John, what a lovely story about your mother-in-law. Blessings and peace to you and your family

  2. Stephanie York says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a very special person. Blessings to you all.

  3. Joan Carlson-Miller says:

    Great tribute to Shirley, John!

  4. Terese McGroarty says:

    John you were a blessing to your mother in law as much as she was a blessing to you. This is a wonderful tribute. I am sure her passing will bring much sadness to your family, but she will be hearing from our Lord and Savior, “Well done good and faithful servant”.

  5. Kish Family says:

    John, what a beautiful tribute.. Praising Jesus now . for you are standing on Holy ground, angels are singing all around .. May this be a sweet, sweet time … and may you all find comfort and rest in the One who holds you in the palm of His hand … Love to the family … all the Kish’s ..

  6. Taylor Bennington says:

    John- What a beautiful tribute. Nearly brought me to tears, and I was never blessed with the opportunity to meet Shirley.

    We can rest assured in knowing that as a believer, she is safe in the saviors hands. So thankful for that security we find in salvation.

    I’m praying for you and your loved ones during this difficult time. If there’s anything I can do please don’t hesistate to contact me.

    “And then one day I’ll cross the river,
    I’ll fight life’s final war with pain.
    And then, as death gives way to vict’ry,
    I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He lives!”


    -Taylor Bennington

    • jkerezy says:


      Thank you for kind words and thoughts. “What a friend we have in Jesus” will always have a different, much more powerful meaning for me now.

      See you somewhere on the speech/debate tournament circuit soon. Keep up the excellent work with Highland.

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