In Memoriam: Imogene Powers Johnson, Long-Serving Board Member and Inspiration

By John W. Fitzpatrick
May 9, 2018
Imogene Powers JohnsonImogene "Gene" Powers Johnson. Image ca. 2004 courtesy Johnson Keland Management, Inc.

All of us at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, along with the entire Cornell University community, lost one of our longest and most cherished friends with the passing of Imogene Powers (Gene) Johnson on March 3, 2018, at age 87.

We recently honored Gene as the first Life Member of our administrative board, in recognition of her continuous service on our board since 1980. Sapsucker Woods was among Gene’s favorite places, and Gene’s love of nature and science will forever be expressed in the beautiful building we walk into every day, the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity. Indeed, the building carries a hallmark of Gene’s artistic sensibilities: I clearly remember her steadfastly urging our architects to “emphasize curved lines, not straight ones” as they designed the 90,000 square-foot building. In the words of architect Alan Chimacoff, these curvatures, along with the cedar and stone exterior, “allowed us to make an aircraft carrier look natural in the woods.”

Gene Johnson sits at the center of the LabGene Johnson sits at the center of the Lab's administrative board in 1985. She served on our board continuously since 1980. Photo by Hadley C. Smith.

Gene was a remarkably humble, caring, and friendly person, as well as generous, optimistic, and an adventurous traveler. A mathematics major at Cornell (class of 1952), she was intelligent and passionately interested in both the natural and physical worlds, from birds and bogs to astronomy, gems, meteorites, and even coprolites (fossilized dinosaur dung, which Gene liked to give away as mementos).

She was radiantly cheerful, often breaking into an easy, distinctive, and utterly lovable laugh. She treated everyone she knew with genuine respect, from her deepest friends and sorority sisters to the countless new acquaintances and students she regularly met through her many civic and educational activities. Above all, Gene was passionately committed to her family—to Sam, her husband of 56 years whom she met at Cornell in 1948; to her four devoted children, Winnie, Fisk, Curt, and Helen; and to her thirteen grandchildren, three step-grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

At a 2017 board meeting, Gene chats with Ned Morgens (left) and John Fitzpatrick (right). Photo by Betsy Shrier.At a 2017 board meeting, Gene chats with Ned Morgens (left) and John Fitzpatrick (right). Photo by Betsy Shrier.

The deepest and most enduring testament to Gene’s optimism and belief in the importance of education was her 1965 founding of Prairie School, an outstanding college preparatory school in Racine, Wisconsin, where the Johnsons have resided since the founding of their family company in 1886. Besides being its founding director, Gene served as Prairie School’s permanent board chair. (She also helped ensure through various growth phases of this superb school that its distinctive architecture continued to express the importance of circles and curved lines.)

Gene and Sam also helped launch and support Racine’s first independent charter school, and they also founded the River Bend Nature Center just west of Racine. Gene served on the board of the Johnson Foundation, and was a life member of the board of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The Johnsons were major benefactors of their beloved Cornell University, especially the S. C. Johnson Graduate School of Management and our own Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Gene was the first Cornell Lab board member I met while interviewing for the job as executive director of the Lab, almost 25 years ago. Since that lively Chicago dinner, I have been blessed to have Gene as a dear and joyful friend, honest critic, and steadfast supporter. Together with so many others whose lives she touched, I will miss her down-to-earth style, her beaming smile, her trademark gentle laugh, her courage to embrace and effect change, her unconditional love of family, and her boundless joy both in people and in the natural world.