JOHNSON--Betty. Betty Wold Johnson, matriarch of the Johnson Family and a renowned philanthropist, died peacefully on May 5. She was 99. Mrs. Johnson, or Betty as she liked to be called, was one of the most celebrated philanthropists of her generation, supporting many Princeton and NewYork arts and science institutions, including the McCarter Theatre, the Nature Conservancy of New Jersey, the Liberty Science Center, the Arts Council of Princeton, the Princeton Public Library, the New York City Opera, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center. In 2008, she donated $11 million to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the single largest individual gift in the Newark arts center's history. She was drawn to the arts because, as she put it, they "feed the spirit." Betty also supported many health organizations, funding the rebuilding of Princeton Hospital and, through Project Renewal, supported aid to the homeless and programs providing mobile health services to those in need. She was conscious of the need to promote the health of her community following a legacy which had started with the Johnson family years before. "There was a generosity about her spirit that you don't see often, particularly in philanthropy," said her son, Woody Johnson, currently the United States Ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. "But she was very careful and very savvy in that she would say, 'I'll match whatever you give.' She signed every check. I learned so much from my mother. She was correct 99.9 percent of the time, starting from my earliest memories." She viewed philanthropy as her job, running an organization's Board meetings like any seasoned CEO. She was intellectually curious. When offered novel ideas, she looked to find ways to put those ideas into practice. Unlike so many philanthropists, Mrs. Johnson preferred to give anonymously. She cared more about being able to help an organization raise more money than being able to promote herself. She recognized that others would be interested in funding high profile projects but few are likely to support cleaning the carpets and mending the drapes. Her gifts were significant but were largely unknown except to the recipients. Understanding her innate humility, but insisting on providing her with recognition, the nursing school at UMDNJ proudly displayed the plaque they had placed in the basement. It read, "Betty's Boiler Room". Ken Farber, president of the Lupus Research Alliance, met Mrs. Johnson in the mid 1980s, when he was executive of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Mrs. Johnson was a generous donor. She later recruited him to head the Lupus Research Alliance, after a granddaughter developed the condition. "The Johnson family got us going with multi-million dollar gifts," Mr. Farber recalled. "Then quietly, Betty made an additional personal gift of over 50 million dollars." During World War II, she enlisted in the Navy's WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) after the attack on Pearl Harbor. She was stationed in Corpus Christi, TX and helped train young fighter pilots in flight simulators at Rhode Island's Naval Air Station. During the war she met and married Robert Wood Johnson III, the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, founder of the Johnson and Johnson Company. They had five children before his death in 1970 at age 50. In 1978, she married Douglas Bushnell. In addition to her charm and graciousness, she was a noted beauty. "She always looked great," said Woody. "She always got dressed at 8am and came downstairs fully dressed, even when she was 99. The only day she didn't do that was the Monday before she died." She had an inner fortitude that saw her through many of life's challenges. Even at her advanced age, she would insist upon walking across a large parking lot rather than be dropped off at the door. Woody attributes it to her midwestern roots. "She had that hearty Minnesota attitude where you don't complain and you don't explain - you just carry on and get the job done," he said. "She'd say, 'If you're cold, put your jacket on. If you're hot, take it off.' And that was about it." Another son, Christopher Johnson, the CEO of the New York Jets, agrees. "When you live 99 years experiencing so many twists and turns of American history, you live through some interesting times, and unfortunately some tragic times," he said. "The Depression and the death of her parents, three of her five children and two husbands. She would talk to my friends who had lost a child and help them through that. Somehow she knew how to help people through their grief." Along with philanthropy and her family, she was a passionate lover of football. The game had always been part of her life; she spent her formative years listening to and attending Golden Gophers games with her father, Dr. Karl Christian Wold. "She told me that every Saturday afternoon she sat on the couch with her father and listened, and later watched, University of Minnesota football games," said Neil Burmeister, who worked as a senior financial advisor to the family for over 40 years, and had weekly phone conversations with Mrs. Johnson, just to chat. When the option to buy the New York Jets arose, she was intrigued. "I said, 'It will be fun for you,'" Mr. Burmeister recalled. "She said, 'No. It will hold the family together. We can all have a single purpose and we can go to the games together and the grandchildren will love it. I'll get to see them. It'll be glue for the family.'" But the family didn't just include her biological relatives, it grew to include the team itself. Ms. Johnson used to refer to Jets players as her "grandchildren." She was beloved by the coaches and the players, which was unique for someone in her position. "When I found out that Mrs. Johnson had passed, I got really quiet and sad and had to take a moment and sit there for a little while," said former American football running back Curtis Martin, a New York Jet Hall of Famer. "The ongoing joke was that she was my girlfriend. I've always thought of her as such a wonderful human being. Every time I went to a Jets game after I retired, I wanted to go up to the suite just to see her." Quarterback Josh McCown felt similarly, despite only having played for the Jets for two years. "I appreciated how down to earth she was, and how easy it was to talk to her and how warm she made me feel," he said. "I've experienced ownership groups who didn't talk to players. So, for her to interact and talk with us was a big deal. Given who she was and the status she had, her humility and graciousness was a big deal." Despite having friends of all ages and from all walks of life, she was proudly independent, living alone on her farm in Hopewell, New Jersey until the day she died. She drove a car until age 93 and stayed active by going to the gym and doing chores around the farm. "I called up within the last two years and was told that she was out on the tractor mowing the fields," Christopher recalled with a laugh. "A few months ago I called and was told she was at the gym - the local gym in town! "She was still meeting with people until the Coronavirus lockdown," he added. "With medical researchers, artists, musicians, environmentalists, trying to figure out ways to make the world a better place." Along with her two sons, Mrs. Johnson is survived by 13 grandchildren. On her 99th birthday on January 31, she had one wish. "I better live a long time because there's so much to do," she said. "That wasn't the first time she said it," said Christopher. "She's been saying this for a while. She knew there was no time to waste. And she didn'twaste it."
Published in New York Times on May 12, 2020.