David S. Johnson, 80, NOAA meteorologist

December 19, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

David Simonds Johnson, a meteorologist who pioneered the use of weather satellites for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, died of Alzheimer's disease Friday at his home in Annapolis. He was 80.

Mr. Johnson was a government meteorologist for more than a quarter-century, serving as the first administrator of what has become NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service.

A prestigious award - presented annually by the National Space Club since 1999 - is named for him. The NOAA-David Johnson Award recognizes a young scientist who, according to NOAA's Web site, "encourages new thinking, problem solving or applications of satellite data."

Mr. Johnson did just that as a leader of the government's weather satellite program, said Larry Heacock, a retired NOAA satellite operations director who worked under him.

"He really was an eminent, eminent scientist in his time, known worldwide," Mr. Heacock said.

Gregory W. Withee, NOAA's assistant administrator for satellite and information services, agreed.

"He really paved the way for modern satellite technology to be flown," Mr. Withee said.

Born in Porterville, Calif., Mr. Johnson earned undergraduate and master's degrees in meteorology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

In 1956, he took a job with what was then called the National Weather Bureau's National Weather Satellite Center in Suitland. For the next 26 years, he served as director of the center and its successors, the National Environmental Satellite Service and NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service. He retired from NOAA in 1982.

Mr. Johnson conceptualized and supported the direct broadcast of U.S. weather satellite data so that other countries could receive and use the pictures, Mr. Heacock said.

Because of his work in the internationalization of weather satellites, Mr. Johnson led a delegation of American meteorologists who met with their counterparts in China in the early 1960s, Mr. Heacock said.

Outside of meteorology, Mr. Johnson's interests included sailing. He owned a 43-foot ketch, named Eole for a French weather satellite. He also enjoyed traveling to Europe and collecting fine wines.

Mr. Johnson, who had lived in Annapolis since the 1970s, was married twice. His first wife, the former Betty Jeanne Reed, died in 1973. His second wife, the former Peg McFarland, died in 1987.

"He was a gentleman like you will never, ever know," said a stepdaughter, Molly McFarland Burke of Gaithersburg. "He always placed the other person first, always. Never would I ever open a door."

Family members recalled Mr. Johnson's dry, "English-like" sense of humor, and his ability to relate to people from all walks of life.

"He was a very bright man," Mrs. Burke said. "Sometimes when you're bright, you don't seem to relate to the rest of the world. He could relate to someone with 10 Ph.D.s or someone who didn't graduate from high school."

A private funeral is planned.

In addition to Mrs. Burke, Mr. Johnson is survived by two stepdaughters, Peggy McFarland Garman of Edgewater and Martha McFarland McElroy of Frederick; five step-grandchildren; and four step-great-grandchildren.

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