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Elizabeth Johnson, widow of former MIT president Howard Johnson, dies at 92

Known for her ‘warmth, kindness, and gracious good sense’ during campus upheaval in the late 1960s, Johnson helped lead MIT at a divisive time.
Elizabeth “Betty” Weed Johnson
Elizabeth “Betty” Weed Johnson

Elizabeth “Betty” Weed Johnson, the widow of former MIT president Howard W. Johnson, died Sunday, Jan. 5. She was 92.

The Johnsons joined the MIT community in 1955, when Howard Johnson took a job on the faculty of what is now the MIT Sloan School of Management. Both maintained a deep professional commitment and abiding affection for the Institute for more than five decades — especially during the turbulent years, from 1966 to 1971, when Howard Johnson was MIT’s president.

“Betty and Howard Johnson led MIT during perhaps its most tumultuous era,” says Susan Hockfield, who served as MIT’s president from 2004 to 2012. “Mrs. Johnson’s warmth, kindness, and gracious good sense supported and magnificently amplified President Johnson’s leadership. Through the disruptions of the times, they successfully ‘held the center’ while events threatened to tear MIT, and America’s great institutions of higher education, from their foundations.”

Hockfield also expressed appreciation for Betty Johnson’s concern for the entire MIT community. “When my family came to MIT,” Hockfield says, “the warmth of Mrs. Johnson’s welcome and her encouraging advice helped us navigate our new lives here. Betty and Howard served as constant beacons of inspiration, of lives well-lived in service to the Institute, the region, and the nation.”

Betty Johnson met her husband of 59 years in the late 1940s, as a supervisor at a Chicago department store to which Howard Johnson had been assigned to develop a compensation program. They were married in 1950, and would raise three children. As Howard Johnson moved into academia at the University of Chicago, Betty Johnson worked in the campus personnel office.

Moving to MIT in 1955 with her husband, she fell in love with the area. “I love the history and geography of Massachusetts. I like the old and the new,” she explained in a 1970 interview with the Sunday Herald Traveler newspaper. “Massachusetts is a very alive, moving, interesting place.”

There were also harrowing experiences for the Johnson family, notably when they lived in the Institute’s official presidential residence at 111 Memorial Dr. (now known as Gray House). In his 1999 memoir “Holding the Center,” Howard Johnson described anti-Vietnam War protests on campus that literally came through the family’s front door: “a four-foot length of steel pipe was thrown through a large window on the first floor,” Howard Johnson wrote, and a protester then “climbed up to another of our first floor windows. Betty was unruffled through most of this.”

“She was a warm, empathetic person who’d grown up in the Midwest during the Great Depression,” Betty Johnson’s son, Stephen, told MIT News. “She understood that it was people who made the world go round.” During the campus upheavals of the late 1960s, “she was very protective [of her family], and sought to create an oasis of calm and support.”

“She understood that what made MIT great,” he added, “besides all its brilliant people, is its sense of community” — which she sought to foster “whether entertaining freshman or hosting senior executives. She was a real asset to my father and MIT.”

Betty Johnson had a special interest in environmental issues. In 2006, the MIT Women’s League established the Elizabeth W. Johnson Fellowship, which “acknowledges Betty’s concern for the environment by enabling an Institute undergraduate to pursue his or her interest in environmental studies.”

Betty Johnson was predeceased by her husband, who died in 2009. She is survived by her three children: Stephen Johnson, of Medford, Mass.; Laura Johnson, of Concord, Mass.; and Bruce Johnson, of Mendocino, Calif., and also survived by three grandchildren: Luke Johnson Rogers, James Lion Johnson, and Oliver Lion Johnson.

Memorial gifts may be made to the Howard W. and Elizabeth W. Johnson Fund at MIT.

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