Ejner James Johnson, 74, chief of staff for Gov. Hughes


Ejner James Johnson, who was chief of staff for Gov. Harry R. Hughes and former head of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, died of Parkinson's disease Tuesday at Baltimore Washington Medical Center. He was 74.

As Mr. Hughes' chief of staff, he played a pivotal role in helping the governor restore confidence in the state's savings and loans during a crisis in the mid-1980s that threatened to cause the collapse of the state's thrifts. He also is credited with making the Motor Vehicle Administration more accessible by opening branch offices around the state.

"He was a very intelligent guy. He was very compassionate and was a hard worker," Mr. Hughes said yesterday.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Johnson graduated from the former Erasmus Hall High School in 1950. He served as a tank commander from 1951 to 1953 with the Army in Europe.

FOR THE RECORD - An obituary published Saturday for Ejner James Johnson, the chief of staff for Gov. Harry R. Hughes, omitted the name of the deceased man's son, who had died in 1991 at the age of 27. He was Richard Christian Johnson.
The Sun regrets the errors.

He graduated in 1957 from the University of Maryland, College Park, where he met his future wife, Maria Grace Macrini.

During his senior year of college, he began writing for the Baltimore News Post. While working there as a political columnist, he met Mr. Hughes, who was then a state employee.

Mr. Johnson left the paper in 1961 to become a speech writer for Gov. J. Millard Tawes. In 1965, he became deputy commissioner of the Motor Vehicle Administration. He was appointed commissioner in 1970 and became administrator two years later when the agency was absorbed into the state Department of Transportation, then headed by Mr. Hughes.

During his tenure at the MVA, Mr. Johnson began moving women into leadership positions. When he became commissioner, none of its 11 divisions was headed by a woman. When he left, three were.

The agency also had only one office when he took over, but under his management it expanded to nine branches.

"We had only Glen Burnie, and I thought that just wasn't proper public service," Mr. Johnson told The Sun in 1979.

That year, he left the agency - which now has 24 branches and a bus that serves as a mobile office - to become secretary of the Department of Licensing and Regulation. During a brief stint as head of that department, he ran a tight ship, requiring top department officials to punch in and out of work.

He became Mr. Hughes' chief of staff later in 1979, working tirelessly.

"When the legislature was in session, we would never see him before 9 p.m.," said his son, Ejner James Johnson Jr. "He would leave home around 7:30 a.m., and I'll never forget - we would never see him for the months while the legislature was in session."

As chief of staff, he also played a key role addressing a savings and loan crisis that threatened to cripple the state's thrift industry. In his role, he helped the governor restore public confidence in the institutions by encouraging them to obtain federal insurance.

But the stress took its toll. Mr. Johnson, who suffered from an ulcer for years, was hospitalized in the midst of the savings and loan crisis, suffering from exhaustion.

"I was out of the country in Israel for a week, and he had to take over," Mr. Hughes said. "He was going day and night, and it got to him. There was an emergency and he responded to it. ... I could rely on him, and he was tremendously helpful to me as chief of staff."

But even during times when pressure and stress levels were high, Mr. Johnson managed to keep his good humor, friends and family say.

"I remember during the savings and loan crisis, he was going to meetings with financial experts and the [Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.] that seemed to last all night," said Carol Salmon, who was his secretary for more than 20 years.

"He was a very fast learner. He knew something about savings and loans, but he took it upon himself to learn everything about it," she said. "He worked with the Federal Reserve Bank trying to come up with a plan to avoid panic. ... One time he said there was so much to learn it made his hair hurt. It was a hard time that tested everyone's mettle, but he just rose to the occasion like he did every time."

Mr. Johnson would spend any free time he had with his family.

"Let's put it this way: He worked hard and he played hard," his son said.

Mr. Johnson traveled many times with extended family to Aruba, where his wife had grown up. He took his family on yearly bass fishing trips to Bay Lake, Minn., and when his children were growing up, he took them to Snow Hill, where his mother lived.

"We traveled quite a bit," his son said. "He was into baseball, and he was into fishing. He was a father that did a lot of sports, whether he took us to baseball games, or whether he played ball with us in the backyard. He took us fishing and sailing."

Mr. Johnson was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1986 and retired as chief of staff a year later. He worked as a part-time lobbyist for the Automobile Trade Association until the late 1980s and then with his wife's travel agency through the late 1990s.

A memorial service will be held Monday at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park.

In addition to his son, who lives in Millersville, he is survived by a sister, Ann Gramas of Sun City, Fla.; three daughters, Maria Paslick of Montclair, Va., Melissa Mullady of Annapolis and Michelle Canning of Warwick, R.I.; and 18 grandchildren. His wife died in 2002.


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