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Karen Johnson


1942 - 2019
Karen Johnson Obituary
Karen (Brown) Johnson, born in Buffalo, NY, on May 12, 1942, to the late Elizabeth Myers Brown and Dr. Kent Louis Brown, raised in Cleveland, Ohio, passed away peacefully at her home in Schenectady, NY, at age 77 on June 10, 2019. Karen is survived by her longtime companion, Michael Della Rocco; sons, Kent Johnson (Gillian Thomson) and Eric Johnson (fiancée Elizabeth Walsh); brothers, Kent Brown, Jr. (Jody), David Brown (Sandy) and Garry Brown; grandsons, Duncan Johnson, Graham Johnson, and Quinn Johnson, along with numerous cousins, nieces, nephews, and close friends who were like family. Karen was predeceased by her sister-in-law, Susan Brown. She was also the granddaughter of the late Caroline Clark Myers and Dr. Garry Cleveland Myers, founders of the iconic children's magazine, Highlights for Children. Karen graduated from The Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland before earning her bachelor's degree from Radcliffe College in 1964 and her master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1992. Karen was a champion of the people of Schenectady throughout her many years of civic engagement and tireless advocacy. She devoted her vast expertise and talents to the betterment of her adopted home and the lives of its citizens. When Karen moved to Schenectady in 1967, her career in public service started almost immediately. Early on, she devoted her energies to the Schenectady City School District and increased her service through her election as the first woman to the Schenectady City Council in 1975, functioning as Council President from 1980-1983. In 1983, Karen became the first woman to be elected Schenectady's mayor, serving in this role for two terms and working collaboratively to navigate the city's severe financial challenges in the 1980s. In her final year as mayor, she served as President of the New York Conference of Mayors. Karen would later return to her role as an elected official, serving as a member of the Schenectady County Legislature in many capacities from 2001 until her death. As a county legislator, Karen was instrumental in preventing the Glendale Nursing Home from closing and was a leader in the successful effort to construct a new, state-of-the-art facility to provide senior care. During her time on the Schenectady City Council, Karen developed a passion for the preservation of Proctors Theatre, and in 1977 she joined a group of concerned citizens who were instrumental in saving the historic landmark from demolition. She continued her commitment to Proctors Theatre when, in 1994, she was hired as its Campaign Development Director. During that same year, in response to mid-year school cuts that resulted in the slashing of arts and music programs, Karen led a group of residents to establish the annual Kids Arts Festival, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. She also founded another treasured annual community event, Jazz on Jay, a lunchtime concert series that brings people together to enjoy free concerts in downtown Schenectady. In 1997, Karen became a board member of MVP Health Care, serving as Chair of the Board from 2013-2018, during which time her facilitative leadership style helped the health insurer grow to become the second largest company based in the Capital Region, according to the Albany Business Review. Karen was also an active member of the third generation of her family's business, Highlights for Children, Inc., serving on the Board of Directors in the 1980s and taking a leadership role in developing sustainable family governance systems and fostering a multigenerational commitment to family stewardship. Over her long career, Karen was the recipient of numerous awards recognizing her civic and philanthropic contributions. Most recently, in 2018, she received Schenectady's highest distinction, the Patroon Award, and she was recognized by the Women's Fund of the Capital Region as a Trailblazer. In March 2019, the Schenectady County Legislature elected to name in her honor the main branch of the Schenectady Public Library – now known as the Honorable Karen B. Johnson Library. Regardless of her focus--education, the arts, city and county governance, health care, or business--Karen was most passionate about bringing people together for the common purpose of creating innovative solutions to community challenges. She lived her belief that "we learn more by listening to the people that we don't agree with." As a trailblazer for women in local government, she valued serving as a mentor and resource to others. Karen, at once both tenacious and humble, used her flexible and skilled approach as a leader to achieve success in creating change that benefitted everyone. Achieving a positive impact on those around her ultimately served both as her primary motivation and her greatest reward. Karen's thoughtful nature, fierce determination and strength, commitment to inclusiveness and change-maker mentality touched many lives and will be deeply missed. She leaves a legacy through her work that will long continue to affect the community she loved. The family would like to thank Lolita Busjit, Chandra Karamchand, Parbatee Ishmael, Jeanette Balkisson, Betty Singh, Jude Rabig, and Dr. Arthur Ostrov for their compassionate and devoted care during Karen's illness. Donations in Karen's memory may be made to the Karen Brown Johnson Scholarship at Schenectady County Community College Foundation, 78 Washington Ave, Schenectady, NY 12305. (https://bit.ly/2KanmT1) or to any cause dedicated to the improvement of the lives of Schenectady residents. An event to celebrate the life of Karen Johnson will be held at Proctors Theatre at a date to be determined.
Published in The Daily Gazette from June 14 to June 15, 2019
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