Imogene “Gene” Powers Johnson was a remarkable woman whose intelligence, humility, grace and beauty were matched equally by her strength of character, boundless compassion and lifelong passion for education and learning. She was a loving daughter and sister, a devoted wife, as well as an incredible and devoted mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
Her determination and persistence were forged as a child growing up against the backdrop of post-Depression struggles and World War II uncertainties. School was her solace and where her dreams took root. She attended Cornell University on academic scholarships from the Standard Oil Company, graduating in 1952 with a B.S. in Mathematics. After graduation, she was employed at Ryan Aeronautical in San Diego, California as an Engineer’s Mathematician, working on the development of the world’s first aeronautical computer. In 1954, she married her college sweetheart, Sam Johnson, and moved to her new home of Racine, Wisconsin. Theirs was an extraordinary partnership built on a shared love of fun and adventure, and unwavering commitment to family, community and to “giving back more than we take from the world.”
Gene believed there is no greater tool of empowerment than education and devoted her life to advancing educational opportunities for children. In 1965, she founded The Prairie School in Racine, Wisconsin with the sole purpose of bringing out the best in every child, of being a place where children are inspired to learn, thrive as individuals, who care about each other and about making the world a better place. Together with Sam, Gene provided foundational support for the development and launch of the 21st Century Preparatory School, Racine’s first independent charter school. She was also instrumental in the development of the River Bend Nature Center wildlife refuge, securing and donating much of its 80 acres, and providing ongoing support for its environmental education programs and outdoor recreational opportunities. She quietly and generously supported many regional museums and institutions to enhance community-wide educational opportunities. In her spare time, she was an amateur astronomer, horticulturalist, rockhound, avid birdwatcher and unapologetic nature lover.
In addition to serving as Chairman and Director of The Prairie School, she was a presidential Councillor at Cornell University and Director of The Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, member of the Board of Trustees for the Johnson Foundation and a Life Trustee of The Adler Planetarium in Chicago. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin and an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Left to always remember and celebrate her life well-lived are her four children: S. Curtis Johnson, former Chairman, Johnson Diversey, Inc.; Helen Johnson-Leipold, Chairman & CEO, Johnson Outdoors and Chairman, Johnson Bank; H. Fisk Johnson, Chairman, SC Johnson; and, Winnie Marquart, President, The Samuel C. Johnson Family Foundation; her thirteen grandchildren, three step-grandchildren and four great-grandchildren; her sister-in-law, Marianne Powers; many nieces and nephews; and, her extended family and friends, the teachers, staff and students of The Prairie School, the associates of Johnson Bank, and employees of SC Johnson, Johnson Outdoors and Johnson Keland Management, to whom she was the greatly admired and beloved matriarch of the family. A special thank you to the medical and personal attendants for their care and compassion. The family suggests any memorials be made to The Prairie School.