Life Story Funeral Homes®
The exclusive providers of the Life Story Experience


Life Story Funeral Homes®
The exclusive providers of the Life Story Experience

Jill (Johnston) Christian

April 3, 2024
Jenison formerly of Kalamazoo, MI




Jill Johnston Christian passed away Wednesday. She was 89. A longtime Kalamazoo-area piano teacher and performer, Jill leaves behind a legacy of love and community through her passion for music and for people.

Born Jan. 8, 1935, Jill was the middle child of Louis and Geraldine Johnston, following brother Jack and eventually big sister to Gail. They were a busy family, with a large, wooded property and home in Parchment that hosted many who came to hear and join her father's regular barbershop quartet singing on Saturday nights. A sign at the driveway pronounced the place "Harmony Acres." And it was.

As teenagers, Jill and Gail and friends regularly performed throughout the region as "The Barberettes." Jill attended Kalamazoo Central High School and then Western Michigan University; she also served as the choir director and organist at Stockbridge United Methodist Church during this time. In 1954, she met her future husband, Dan Christian. She liked to tell the story of the day in her junior year in college when she spotted "a very handsome new addition" to the music building, Maybee Hall. He was a voice performance and science double major and she an organ and voice major. She accompanied Dan in his senior recital, and a week later, performed her recital that included a favorite selection, Widor's Toccata from Symphony No. 5. They married in August 1956 in Kanley Chapel.

Jill taught music at Dexter High School while Dan attended medical school at the University of Michigan. They had their first daughter, Julie Ann, and then moved to Kalamazoo for Dan's residency, when John Porter was born. The young family then moved to Chicago for Dan's internship at Northwestern, and Daniel Swanson was born. Jill and Dan sang in the choir at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue. The family again returned to Kalamazoo, where Dan set up an internal medicine practice. Sue Ellen and Mary Kathryn (Kate) were born, and later, Jill and Dan's niece, Denise Ann, joined the household.

In 1964, Jill began teaching piano out of their home. Early students were family and neighbors, but before long, Jill developed a vibrant home studio that included a grand piano and concert grand in the living room, stacks of sheet music, after-lesson candy, recitals (the Halloween Recital and the Collaborative Recital with Friends became annual treasures), area-wide piano classes, and the annual Christmas party for all past students. She taught as an instructor at the Kalamazoo College Music Center for many years and was president of the Kalamazoo Area Music Teachers Association, for which she managed Achievement Day. From 1986 – 1988, Jill was the president of the Michigan Music Teachers Association, receiving the organization's service award in 2001. Also that year, Jill founded the area youth music competition "Bravo!". In 1992, Jill received the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo Community Medal of Arts award. Jill's piano students were extended family to her, and she cherished her relationships with her students long after they graduated her studio.

Jill had tireless energy, many ideas and always a new undertaking, such as co-creating a high school summer camp for two-piano performance (pieces composed for four hands) with two Hope College piano professors; one of whom, Joan Conway, was a dear friend and integral part of family gatherings. Jill enjoyed lifelong friendships through music, membership at First United Methodist Church, tennis, book group and Friday Club. She and Dan were active in justice-oriented work, including Justice for Our Neighbors, a faith-based immigration ministry. The couple cherished a longtime friendship circle that began in Kalamazoo and extended to their summer cottage at Port Sheldon and their eventual home at Pretty Lake. Jill and Dan had a devoted marriage of 64 years marked by mutual respect. Dan passed in 2021.

Jill is survived by her five children and their spouses: Julie (Bob) Bender; John (Elizabeth) Christian; Daniel (Leslie) Christian; Sue Ellen (Bob) Isacksen; and Kate Christian. Also surviving are 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and many beloved nieces and nephews and their families.

A May service is planned at First United Methodist Church in Kalamazoo; details are forthcoming. In lieu of flowers, donations are gratefully accepted to the First United Methodist Church music fund, or Justice for Our Neighbors-Kalamazoo office at FUMC.