WIND POINT — The life and legacy of mother, wife and community activist Imogene “Gene” Powers Johnson was celebrated during a memorial service Sunday inside The Prairie School’s Athletic Center.
About 1,000 people filed into the school for the celebration of life ceremony, including the Johnson family, former and current Johnson employees, Prairie alumni and students, and officials including Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave, Racine Mayor Cory Mason and Racine Police Chief Art Howell.
“Mom was an incredible woman, so selfless, so giving, so strong, so courageous,” said Helen Johnson-Leipold, Johnson’s daughter. “Mom saw good in every single person and respected everyone. She was more interested in others than she was in herself.”
Johnson, who died March 3 at the age of 87, was the wife of late SC Johnson Chairman Sam Johnson and one of the Racine community’s major benefactors. Supporting education was one of her primarily passions, as well as exploring the outdoors, traveling the world and spending time with her family and friends.
Inside the memorial program was a quote by Gene: “Time is precious. We can’t stop time and we can’t go back. We live in the moment, not before it and not after. Make every moment with your family count ... make each one a moment that will last a lifetime.”
Johnson founded The Prairie School in 1965 and served as the school’s chairman and director. She was extremely devoted to the school, rarely missing an event.
During the ceremony, her family said their mother bought lottery tickets, often stating that she would give all the profits to The Prairie School if she ever won.
“This school would not be here if it were it not for Mrs. Johnson,” said Nathaniel W. Coffman, president of The Prairie School. “We are truly fortunate to be a part of her substantial legacy and to have benefited from her leadership and vision over the last 54 years.”
In addition to The Prairie School, Johnson was instrumental in the development of the River Bend Nature Center in Caledonia and, together with Sam, Gene provided support for the development and launch of the 21st Century Preparatory School, Racine’s first independent charter school.
Words by family, friends
She left a profound mark on the family she left behind, as evidenced by the words of each of the Johnson children.
“If Mom were here today, I know what I’d say to her,” H. Fisk Johnson said. “I’d say ‘Mom, I want you to know you couldn’t have been a better mother. Thank you for all the things that you did for me. Thank you for always watching over me. Thank you for your unconditional and constant love.’ ”
Fisk talked about the lessons his mother enrolled him in to ensure he was a well-rounded individual, her adventurous spirit and the trips the family took together around the world. “I thank you for all the amazing adventures you took us on,” Fisk said.
S. Curtis Johnson echoed his brother’s sentiment, talking about his mother’s adventurousness, which he said rivaled his father’s. “Grateful we all are for the extraordinary life she gave us,” Curtis said. “A life which she filled naturally with her two greatest gifts, in my opinion: compassion and adventure.’”
Winifred Johnson Marquart said the last week of her mother’s life was a happy one in which she took a trip with some of her Cornell sorority sisters to the Bahamas.
“I want all of you to know that Mom lived a full and happy life and she smiled until the last week of her life,” Winifred said.
Winifred said that after her father died, she saw a vulnerable side to her mother, prompting her to get to know her in a different way than she ever had before.
“I will be forever grateful for all the precious time we spent together, times I really got to know her as a person, not just as Mom,” Winifred said. “In the last 10 years, I learned so much more about her life and what made her the amazing person that she was.”
Helen Johnson-Leipold discussed her mother’s humility and contributions to the community, including The Prairie School.
“Mom was the kindest, nicest and most passionate and inspirational person I have ever known,” Helen said. “So now, alongside my father, I have two bigger-than-life heroes that have — and will forever be — my guide to life.”
Raymond Farley, retired president and CEO of SC Johnson & Son, knew both Sam and Gene when they both attended Cornell University. Farley described Gene as an “unusually good friend.”
“To say she will be painfully missed is an understatement,” Farley said.
“Mom was an incredible woman, so selfless, so giving, so strong, so courageous ... Mom saw good in every single person and respected everyone. She was more interested in others than she was herself.” Helen Johnson-Leipold, one of Imogene Johnson’s daughters