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Madame Kinney, the psychic, is no more, but daughters will carry on

By Bill Stevens, Times Columnist
Published: April 1, 2014 Updated: April 2, 2014 at 12:50 AM
Times (1973)
A vintage billboard points the way to the palmist. She and Bob bought a house in the ’70s before U.S. 19 was a major artery. 

Madame Kinney spent a lifetime peering into the future, but even she could not have envisioned the throng that gathered in St. Petersburg for her memorial.

During three days in February, families of Romanian descent from around the country kept coming, more than 300 people sharing barbecue and stories about a woman they believed to have unique powers.

Whether she did, of course, depends on perspective or faith. But it is certain that for 50 years, Madame Kinney personified her psychic profession in Pasco County while endearing herself to a steady clientele from housewives to politicians. She read palms and tarot cards, gazed into crystal balls and offered guidance on everything from business to romance. She called her talent a gift from God.

She made the news from time to time. She and her husband, Bob Johnson, understood politics, and more to the point that her profession needed regulation to keep out the fly-by-nighters. They came and they went, but Madame Kinney endured and prospered because she and Bob also knew a thing or two about investments and land speculation.

Imagine that, a clairvoyant predicting escalating values.

In between sad moments last week, Bob and daughter Shirley Johnson chuckled about that detail during a conversation at their home in Hudson. They had spent most of the last three years caring for Ruth, Madame Kinney's real name, watching her fight off brain cancer but not other infirmities of age. She died on Feb. 24 at age 82.

The Johnsons wanted to let people know about Ruth's passing, and also to announce that Shirley and her sister, Cindy, are taking over the business.

"We've been so busy caring for mom,'' Shirley said, "and now we want to reopen in her honor. We talked about it. This is what she wanted.''

Shirley said she possesses the same "gift'' as her mother and grandmother, and that she has worked professionally since she was 15. She and Cindy have already set up shop at the USA Fleamarket and soon will reopen at the house on U.S. 19, the one with the big "K'' on the front.

Bob and Ruth bought it in the early 1970s when the road out front, U.S. 19, was just a few lanes. Now it's six lanes.

"She knew the area was going to explode with population,'' said Shirley, 55.

Ruth began her readings as a girl traveling with her mother in carnivals. Her grandparents knew Bob's grandparents from Romania, and they helped put Ruth and Bob together.

"Arranged marriages were very common in our culture,'' explained Bob, 84. "We fell very much in love, so I'd say it worked. We were married 62 years.''

They discovered eastern Pasco after working carnivals in Orlando. They settled on 7 acres near U.S. 301 in 1962 and raised chickens, cows and pigs while Madame Kinney built her base. Kinney was her Romanian name.

The Johnsons had five children, all of whom graduated from Pasco High School. The family stood out. "There weren't any other Romanians in Dade City,'' Shirley said. "But we didn't experience any prejudice. It was a good place to grow up.''

Johnson is not exactly a Romanian name. Bob explained that it evolved from his grandfather, whose first name was John. "People would say go see John and sons, and it stuck.'' He said the family name was Uwanawich, but he wasn't sure of the spelling.

"We've been Johnsons forever,'' he said.

He enjoyed running his wife's business and dealing with politicians, even helping in campaigns. But Bob kept in the background and designed advertising campaigns that labeled Madame Kinney "a gifted spiritualist medium superior to any reader you have every consulted.''

In a story in the Times years ago, she offered her own assessment of her talent. "You see things, you feel things and know things, but they have to be presented to the client in a way that he or she can handle and understand … It takes years of experience to learn how to apply the gift.''

"Nobody did it better,'' said her husband. "Nobody.''