The woman who loved an island Judy Johnson: In 1970, the Towson resident and her son decided the most important work she could do was try to keep the Assateague that they knew and loved.

On the Bay

November 03, 1995|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IF MARYLAND EVER builds a Hall of Fame for environmentalists (or better, plants a Grove of Fame), a charter inductee would be Judy Johnson, for whom a tribute recently was held in Annapolis.

She began her career innocently enough, escaping from Towson during the 1960s for camping trips on Assateague Island with her young son, Reid.

The unspoiled beaches of the island, stretching 37 miles between Ocean City and Chincoteague, Va., belied nature's precarious hold there.

First recommended for federal protection as a park in 1935, the island by the mid-1950s had become so developed it was no longer considered a candidate.

Then came the fierce, cleansing nor'easters of 1962, which so disrupted private dreams on Assateague that by 1965 it was authorized as a National Seashore.

The park plan, however, included a major highway down the island for 25 miles, accompanied by a number of commercial enterprises.

In 1970, Judy and Reid, then 12, agreed that the most important thing she could do was to work to keep the island as they knew and loved it.

And so that year, largely unnoticed in the larger scheme of the nation's first Earth Day, was born the Committee to Preserve Assateague. It boasted five members and was headquartered incongruously in the basement of the Johnsons' modest brick rancher on Piccadilly Road.

The Towson address, for a group that represented a distant island on the insularly disposed Eastern Shore, often conjured images of some armchair environmentalist -- until one met Judy and fell under her spell.

She was, and is as she approaches 80, a force of nature who has spent more time on the Maryland and Virginia seacoasts than most Shore natives.

For nearly a quarter century, whether you were a mayor of Ocean City, the Army Corps of Engineers, a surf-fishing club that wanted to drive across the dunes, or a federal park superintendent, you dealt with Judy Johnson, as surely as you reckoned with wind and tide.

Most amazing, nearly everyone who did deal with her ended up liking her, or at least became respectful and a lot better educated to coastal ecosystems.

(Almost everyone: Harry W. Kelley Jr., legendary mayor of Ocean City, once snapped: "That Johnson woman has her island. Tell her let me alone with mine.")

Judy Johnson's remarkable influence was apparent in the lineup of speakers who gathered in Annapolis last month at a dinner to pay tribute.

Col. Randall Inouye, head of the Baltimore District of the Army Corps of Engineers, recalled words he heard on his first day on the job: "I was told, 'Get to know Judy Johnson, and don't mess it up.' "

"Educating" the latest incoming Corps colonel to his responsibilities toward dredging and erosion control affecting Assateague was a Judy ritual every few years or so.

Given the inevitable disagreements between the Corps and environmentalists, it is significant that she is a rare civilian recipient of the Department of the Army's Commander's Award for Public Service.

Steve Leatherman, a nationally known coastal geologist at the ,, University of Maryland and winner of a "genius" award from the MacArthur Foundation, told how he was trying to make a career in Massachusetts, "but Judy kept dragging me back to Maryland again and again."

A veritable who's who of Maryland's environmental community came to the microphone to describe how early in their careers they had been inspired, educated and enlisted by Judy Johnson.

They included John Kabler of Clean Water Action; Chuck Fox, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment; Charlie Stek, longtime environmental aide to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes; and Gerald W. Winegrad, a retired state

senator.

Reid Johnson was there, of course. The boy who used to take beach walks with his mother now is a professor of biological chemistry in the UCLA School of Medicine.

Also her older sister, Suzy Walker, who talked about their growing up in Seattle and Philadelphia; and how Judy, who went to work soon after high school to help support their mother, worked her way up to managing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s before marrying and "becoming a homebody."

Before meeting Suzy, I assumed Judy was unique. Now I think if the two ever had teamed, Mayor Kelley would have thrown in the BTC towel and let Ocean City revert to pristine dunes.

Other speakers, representing many groups with stakes in Assateague, reminded that Judy's focus on "just one island" was hardly simple. Besides a national park, the island includes a national wildlife refuge and a state park, all with different missions.

Her successes ran the gamut: defeating the road; helping save the endangered piping plover; stopping a sewage pipeline across the beach; changing the way the federal government plans for its refuges and seashores; smoothing relations between local townspeople and federal land managers; securing state funds for junior park rangers, engineering trash pickups along the beaches.

All it took was 24 years of 40- to-80-hour weeks. Only recently has Judy eased into well-deserved semiretirement.

A lot of Maryland's environmental progress came from such extraordinary volunteer effort by women like Judy who nowadays would likely have paid careers -- and less time for nature.

Environmental organizations with paid staff have assumed a lot of the burden, and very competently. Still, it is with regret that one realizes we may not see the likes of a Judy Johnson again.

Judy Johnson's group recently changed its name to the Assateague Coastal Trust to reflect an expanded focus on the chain of coastal bays from Delaware to Virginia. For information, write to P.O. Box 731, Berlin 21811.

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