Elena Rova O’Brien Johnson, the quirky, astute north county founder of True Treasures consignment shops who was born in Italy, raised five children, loved animals and recently established an organization to help veterans, died Monday night surrounded by her family.
The 86-year-old died in her BallenIsles home from pancreatic cancer.
Often photographed with parrots and small dogs, Ms. Johnson was widowed when she was 37 when her husband Walter O’Brien died in 1966. She and her five children — Margaret, Kathryn, Elizabeth, Michael and Sheila — moved from Stuttgart, Germany to Houston to take advantage of the then-booming space program.
Ms. Johnson moved in 1987 to Palm Beach County, where she worked for an interior designer and later opened her own business.
“She had family in Italy. We could have stayed there. But my mother had a vision. She believed that the adversity you face makes you stronger,” said her daughter, Margaret O’Brien-Nelson.
Johnson — often working 10-hour days — ran the consignment shops in North Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens for decades with her second husband Scrappy, a decorated Air Force veteran who flew scores of bombing runs during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Scrappy, 97, also trained pilots in World War II and set a world altitude record in 1958 by soaring 91,249 feet in an F-104A Starfighter.
After a 2014 fire damaged her store, Ms. Johnson — with flawless hair and makeup, trademark bold-framed glasses and manicured nails — was down on her knees, digging in the dirt planting flowers.
“You have to start somewhere,” she told The Palm Beach Post.
The couple sold True Treasures in 2014 and started Joint Mission, a nonprofit organization that provides home furnishings for veterans and their families.
Ms. Johnson raised a ruckus in 2009 when she had a 13-by-40 American flag painted on the outside wall of her Northlake Boulevard consignment store. North Palm Beach officials denied her a permit, saying the flag was for advertising and exceeded town limitations.
Johnson said the flag was for patriotism. The public responded with support for her. The Village relented.
“Justice was done tonight. I didn’t doubt it for a moment,” said Johnson, wearing an American flag on her lapel after the vote.
Besides her five children and Scrappy, Ms. Johnson leaves 11 grandchildren and many great grandchildren. A memorial Mass will be celebrated on Saturday, Aug. 20 at 11 a.m. at St. Clare Catholic Church in North Palm Beach. A celebration of Ms. Johnson’s life is being planned for early November, commemorating both her birthday and her beloved veterans. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Joint Mission.