Elizabeth “Betty” Johnson kept copious notes, detailed lists and multiple calendars. She was a clipper, too. When she read something interesting or important, she’d cut it out and file it. All of these were essential tasks for maintaining order in a life that was devoted to the arts, education and government.
The week before she died at age 86, she was putting the finishing touches on a newsletter she had edited for the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented for more than 30 years. She died on Oct. 22.
“She knew the answer to everything,” said Wendy Johnson, one of her daughters. “And she was a good connector of people.”
Johnson was born and raised in a small town in Iowa, and was 17 when she met her future husband, Robert Johnson. In 1956 she joined the League of Women Voters, and was involved with the organization at the local, state and national level.
“That’s what kick-started her political involvement,” said Wendy Johnson. “She was a woman’s libber without being a libber — she wasn’t an activist, she just did.”
The Johnsons moved to Minnetonka 61 years ago into a house built by a Swedish carpenter and she quickly became involved with local politics. She became the first woman on the Minnetonka City Council, but she was also a longtime planning commissioner and was the first and only official Minnetonka city historian. She remained involved with the city planning process well into her 80s.
Johnson was particularly interested in causes related to the arts, education and children. She founded the Child’s Play Theatre (now Stages) and West Suburban Summer School; is credited with influencing the development of the Minnesota Zoo and the West Suburban YMCA, and helped establish the Minnesota Alliance for Arts in Education and the Music Association of Minnetonka, among several others. She worked as a social-services aide for the American Red Cross in New Jersey, an assistant librarian in Ames, Iowa, and at General Mills, among others.
“She would have bankrupted ‘Jeopardy’ with her endless knowledge of world and current events had she been a contestant,” said Wendy Johnson.
As a bright and precocious student herself, and as the parent of gifted students, Johnson became heavily involved in ensuring that such students were adequately challenged. She started the Minnesota chapter of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented (MCGT), and held the positions of president, treasurer and secretary. Wendy Johnson said she was fondly known as the “grandmother of gifted education” in Minnesota.
“She had this deep belief that every kid deserves the best education possible,” said Teresa Boatman, who served with Johnson on the MCGT for a decade.
When Johnson started getting involved with the gifted and talented programs in the 1970s, only one full-time program existed, Boatman said. Now, there are 20 full-time programs in the state.
Boatman said that even toward the end of her life, Johnson was reviewing the board minutes and surprised the board by noticing that she would be getting a lifetime achievement award.
“We didn’t realize she was still engaged,” Boatman said. “You couldn’t get away with anything.”
In addition to her daughter Wendy and husband of 68 years, Johnson is survived by children Burgess Johnson, Diane Erdmann, Laura “Janey” Westin and Miriam Johnson-Dunkirk, and step-granddaughter Rachel Ballard.
She is also survived by numerous grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and three step-great grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 3, at Minnetonka Community Center.