Judith Johnson

[ Age 91 ] Mrs. Johnson was a devoted environmentalist who fought to preserve Assateague Island.

February 16, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Judith C. Johnson, an environmentalist who was a leader in the fight to preserve Assateague Island, died Tuesday from stroke complications at the Broadmead retirement community. She was 91.

The former Judith Montgomery Colt was born in Seattle and moved to Philadelphia in 1928. She was a 1933 graduate of St. Timothy's School, then located in Catonsville, and a year later from the Pierce College of Business Administration in Philadelphia.

During the 1930s, she was a secretary for a bank and private school before working as secretary and later assistant to the manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association. She moved to Baltimore in 1953.

She was manager of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for a year until her 1954 marriage to A. Reid Johnson, who later became a vice president of Maryland Casualty Co. He died in 1995.

Mrs. Johnson was executive director of the Baltimore chapter of Young Audiences from 1972 to 1973, when she became a research assistant at what is now the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Her fascination with Assateague -- a wild barrier island that stretches for 37 miles between Ocean City and Chincoteague, Va. -- began in the 1960s when she drove there in a white Volkswagen microbus and camped with her son.

"We enjoyed the island because there was nothing there. However, there was a master plan that included a highway, developments and hotels," said the son, Reid Colt Johnson, a professor of biological chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. "I told her that it would be a shame if that happened and that she should really try and do what she could to stop it. That was the beginning of her work."

The island's designation as a park under federal protection was first proposed in the 1930s, but by the 1950s the idea had been abandoned because development of Assateague was already growing.

After a powerful Nor'easter raked the island in 1962, the federal government designated it a National Seashore. Despite the move, a major highway project stretching down the island for 25 miles coupled with commercial development still loomed as threats to Assateague's solitude and pristine nature.

In 1970, Mrs. Johnson and five others founded the Committee to Preserve Assateague Island Inc. -- an organization that grew to more than 1,300 members. She was its first chairwoman and later served as its president.

Its headquarters was in the basement of her modest brick ranch home on Piccadilly Road, where she lived until moving to Broadmead in 1995.

"The Towson address, for a group that represented a distant island on the insularly disposed Eastern Shore, often conjured up some armchair environmentalist -- until one met Judy and fell under her spell," former Sun environmental columnist Tom Horton wrote in a 1995 article on her retirement from the committee. "She was a force of nature who has spent more time on the Maryland and Virginia seacoasts than most Shore natives."

Mrs. Johnson worked for the Maryland Environmental Trust from 1977 until resigning in 1980 to devote herself to the committee. Its work was complicated because the island is comprised of three parks -- the national seashore, a national wildlife refuge and a Maryland state park.

"Judy was an amazing woman and a human dynamo. She could do the work of three paid people. She was an extraordinary mentor and had great organizational skills," said Ajax Eastman, an environmental activist and committee member, and former longtime president of the Maryland Conservation Council.

"She readily excelled at networking and pulling together meetings. She was in touch with people in Washington and started a working relationship with the Army Corps of Engineers," Ms. Eastman said. "And she wasn't afraid to speak out."

"For nearly a quarter of a 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," Mr. Horton wrote.

In 1976, the National Seashore Act was amended to remove provisions for commercial development and for the proposed highway. She led and successively won battles against a proposed sewage pipeline to be built across the beach, threatening an endangered species of bird, the piping plover.

Mrs. Johnson enjoyed presenting slide talks on Assateague and the Delmarva coast, Alaska, and swans, which she declared to be "our most beloved birds."

She was a communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St., where a memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

She is also survived by two grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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