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Gert Johnson: Legend of North Third Street

The Tip Top Cafe is pictured during a typical night in 1978. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Over the years there have been many colorful personalities who have lived and worked up and down Third Street in Marquette.

But there was only one Gert Johnson.

Born in Munising, Gert was for many years the manager of the Tip Top Cafe on the 500 North block of Third. Opened in 1938 by Nick & Rose Arger, the restaurant closed for a bit during World War II. It reopened in 1946, and for three and a half decades became a top hangout for Northern Michigan University students, their professors and a whole bunch of other residents of the city of Marquette. And for most of that time, Gert looked after everyone who entered her establishment.

Described as “a mom to many” and loved by just about everyone who knew her, Gert must’ve had the best memory in the world, at least as far as birth dates went. And it really didn’t matter how much time had passed; even a decade later she would remember who you were.

Once she caught you trying to buy a drink while underage, she would stop you every time you walked through the door with plans to do it again.

Of course, when you turned 18 or 21, whatever the legal drinking age was at the time, she would probably buy you a drink to celebrate.

But until then, she remembered that you weren’t quite yet old enough.

Gert started at the Tip Top as a cook after it reopened following the end of World War II, and a decade later went on to manage the place, a job she held until it closed 26 years later. It could also be said that she managed the lives of people who frequented the bar, people that she came to know and came to regard as “family.”

Many people tell stories like this one, where a young woman who went to NMU in the 1960s said “Me and three other gals lived in the apartment behind the Tip Top while at NMU and Gert would feed us at the end of the month when we ran out of money for food.”

Maybe that’s why in 1976 NMU held “Gert Johnson Day.” Some 250 current and former Northern students and employees packed a room at Lakeview Arena to pay tribute to the lady who had served them and taken care of them over the years.

Many recalled the loans she’d given them or the advice and encouragement she had passed on. She, in turn, remembered many of the people there–even ones she hadn’t seen in several decades–and would talk about the dreams they had as students, and whether or not those dreams ever came to fruition.

The Tip Top closed in 1983, and Gert went to work as a cook at Whiskers, a bar in North Marquette.

She died in 1988, and in one final tribute from the students and the school she loved, a scholarship fund was set up in her name at NMU

By the way, a bit of the old Tip Top still lives on in Marquette. The next time you’re in the Bodega Cafe and sitting in one of those wooden booths along the windows?

Those booths came from the Tip Top, managed for many years by the one and only Gert Johnson.

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from “Third Street: Day & Night,” a historical documentary now available for purchase from the Marquette Regional History Center. If you’d like to know more about downloading the show, just go to www.marquettehistory.org.

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