Byerte W. Johnson, of Montclair, 92, died on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. She was born on March 8, 1926.
Mrs. Johnson’s life was shaped by her love of music, the support of her parents and the gift of a piano. So determined was she to play that when a church wanted to get rid of a piano, her parents arranged for movers to bring it to their home and deliver it by hoist removing a second story window. In a StoryCorps interview, she told her granddaughter that the window never again looked quite the same. She was determined to be a musician and she was committed to learn.
For most of the next 80 years, music was a central feature of her life. She began playing for Sunday school as a teenager. She served church and college choirs throughout New Jersey, including two Montclair churches, St. Paul Baptist Church where she was the minister of music, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church where she directed the award-winning Choralaires, Shiloh Baptist Church in Newark, New Zion Baptist Church and Third Westminster Presbyterian Church both in Elizabeth and Bloomfield College.
Baritone Vance Frazier, who sang with her for over 60 years, said she was “passionate about music, technically magnificent and meticulous in execution.” Metropolitan Opera tenor George Shirley was routinely featured in her annual production of the “Messiah” by her Baroque Chorale. For 39 years, until she was 90, she led as many as 60 voices drawn from all over New Jersey in presenting Handel’s masterwork.
She taught piano students in Montclair from her arrival in 1957, until shortly before her death last week at 92. Her former students number in the thousands and many have led choirs all over the northeast. She also taught as an adjunct professor at Kean University until last year and at Bloomfield College as well.
Her undergraduate studies at Rutgers were put on hold when she left to support two sisters in college. She finished her bachelor’s degree at Bloomfield College in 1977. She later earned masters degrees at both Kean University and Princeton Theological Seminary. She earned her PhD in Christian education at age 70 from Drew University. Governor Thomas Kean, who had been president of Drew at the time, said she was the oldest student to whom he ever awarded a doctorate degree. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and received numerous accolades in her long and productive life.
Mrs. Johnson is predeceased by Edward J. Johnson III to whom she was married for 36 years. She is survived by three children and their spouses, the Rev. Durwin and Penny Johnson, James Johnson and Nancy Northup and Margaret Johnson Cunningham and Robert Cunningham, MD and eight grandchildren and great-grandchildren, five sisters and a brother and a host of nieces, nephews, friends and scores of students and choir members.
A wake will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Jan, 11 at St. Paul Baptist Church, 119 Elm St., Montclair. A celebration of life will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 12 at the same location.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made in her memory to the Montclair Child Development Center for the purpose of building a musical education program for young students. Checks should be made payable to Montclair Child Development Center and mailed to to Susan Chaberski, chief financial officer, Montclair Child Development Center, 33 Fulton St. Montclair NJ 07042. In the memo line write: “In memory of Byerte W. Johnson for music education.”