Imogene Powers Johnson ’52, widow of Samuel C. Johnson ’50 and an avid ornithologist, died on Saturday at the age of 87.
One of her four alumni children, H. Fisk Johnson III ’79, M.Eng ’80, M.S. ’82, MBA ’84, Ph.D ’86, chairman and CEO of SC Johnson & Son, a manufacturing company, called his mother “the pillar” of the family.
“She exposed us to the love of learning, taught us about the wonder of nature, shared her values and incredible care for people, and devoted her life to support, and help guide the four of us,” he wrote in a statement on his Facebook page. “She was always there when we needed her.”
Johnson attended Cornell on Standard Oil Co. academic scholarships and received her bachelor of arts degree in mathematics in 1952. There, she met her future husband.
Johnson and her husband, who served on the Board of Trustees from 1966 to 1988, were major contributors to their alma mater , according to a University press release from January 2017. Both were distinguished as presidential councillors, the highest honor the University Board of Trustees can bestow. Together they gifted $20 million in 1984 to the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management in honor of Samuel Johnson’s grandfather, the press release said.
The alumnae was also a member of the Lab of Ornithology Administrative Board. The Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity was named after her in 2000, according to a University press release from January 2017.
“Mom loved nature and was an avid birder,” read H. Fisk Johnson III’s Facebook statement. “She so enjoyed being involved as a board member with the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology.”
John W. Fitzpatrick, the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the ornithology lab, praised her work in a University press release from January 1998, after the lab’s Imogene Powers Johnson Senior Scientist chair was created with a $2 million endowment by the Johnson family.
“She has been a guiding force behind the laboratory’s education programs since she first joined the administrative board in 1980,” he said. “Gene is a stalwart and always ready-to-help friend to lab staff, fellow administrative board members and the lab membership.”
Fitzpatrick told The Sun in a statement on Tuesday that Johnson’s “legacy at the Lab will be permanent” and that the ornithology lab will “miss her bright smile and gentle laughter very deeply.”
“Everyone in the extended family of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is devastated by the news of Gene Johnson’s passing,” he wrote. “Every day we walk into our beautiful building that is named in her honor, and we feel fortunate to have known her. She was one of our guiding stars for forty years — a cheerful and lovely person who was dedicated to science, to her family, and to Cornell.”
Johnson’s beneficence extended well beyond her gifts and commitment to the University. In 1965 Johnson co-founded The Prairie School, a private college preparatory school in Wind Point, Wisconsin.
“Gene believed there is no greater tool of empowerment than education and devoted her life to advancing educational opportunities for children,” read a memorial statement on The Prairie School’s website.
Johnson also contributed to the development of the 21st Century Preparatory School in Racine, Wisconsin, and the River Bend Nature Center wildlife refuge, according to The Journal Times. She also “quietly supported many regional museums and institutions to enhance community-wide educational opportunities,” said the article.
Stephen Hogan, Senior Director of Global Public Affairs at Fisk Johnson’s company, told The Sun that the company was unable to comment on the matter at this time because it is a “personal, private matter.”