Imogene “Gene” Powers Johnson ’52, right, and Samuel C. Johnson ’50 at the October 1984 announcement of the couple's landmark $20 million gift to name the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

Cornell benefactor Imogene Powers Johnson dies at 87

Imogene “Gene” Powers Johnson ’52, a devoted alumna, benefactor and matriarch of a multigenerational philanthropic Cornellian family, died March 3 in Racine, Wisconsin. She was 87.

Johnson was a presidential councillor and a longtime member of the Lab of Ornithology Administrative Board. She was predeceased in 2004 by her husband, Samuel C. Johnson ’50, chairman emeritus of SC Johnson and a Cornell trustee emeritus and presidential councillor.

Sam and Gene Johnson were parents to four Cornellians: S. Curtis Johnson III ’77; Helen Johnson-Leipold ’78; H. Fisk Johnson ’79, M.Eng. ’80, M.S. ’82, MBA ’84, Ph.D. ’86; and Winifred Johnson Marquart ’81.

As leading benefactors, Sam and Gene and the Johnson family made numerous landmark gifts to the university, including the naming of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management in honor of Sam’s grandfather in 1984; the Imogene Powers Johnson Senior Scientist chair at the Lab of Ornithology in 1998; and the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity at the Lab in 2000.

From left, Samuel C. Johnson, Rosa Rhodes, Gene Johnson and President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes during Cornell’s Reunion Weekend in 2000.

“Gene and her late husband, Sam, inspired and supported transformational advances across Cornell over decades of involvement,” said Cornell President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes. “Rosa and I are deeply grateful to have known both of them and called them our friends, and we greatly appreciate the ways that their children are now serving the university in their own right. Cornell has lost a truly devoted alumna and benefactor, who will be dearly missed.”

“Gene’s loss will be felt across Cornell, and by her loving family and many friends in Racine and around the world,” said Cornell President Emeritus Hunter R. Rawlings III. “Elizabeth and I had the great pleasure of getting to know Gene in many ways, including through our shared efforts in support of the Laboratory of Ornithology, where the impact of her leadership and philanthropy has been profound.”

The gift to create the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity, which opened in 2003 to house the Lab’s visitor center and its programs in citizen science, education, conservation and bioacoustics research, reflected Johnson’s love for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“It is fitting indeed that the Lab’s beautiful building bears her name, for Gene has been closely involved with our organization for 40 years,” said John Fitzpatrick, the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the Lab of Ornithology, in a message to his board members on Monday.

“She hosted several pivotal meetings … which through the years have helped define our mission, launch a building campaign, reorganize our structure and plan for our future. Always she was a gracious and upbeat person, devoted to science and conservation as well as birds. We will all miss Gene deeply. The Lab will long feel her absence.”

Johnson earned her undergraduate degree at Cornell in mathematics and worked as a computer programmer. She was a longtime advocate for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, and was a nature enthusiast, avid birder and advocate for environmental causes.

For decades, she was one of the major benefactors of the Racine community, home to SC Johnson’s family of companies. She was founding director and chairman of the board of The Prairie School, a private school just north of Racine, and served on the boards of The Johnson Foundation in Racine and Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

The Johnson family and Cornell University have a special relationship that dates back more than a century. Samuel Johnson’s father, Herbert F. Johnson Jr. ’22, served as a trustee and presidential councillor and committed the funds that allowed Cornell to build the art museum that bears his name.

Sam and Gene Johnson’s $20 million gift for the Johnson School was, at the time, the largest ever from individuals to a business school.

Fisk Johnson is SC Johnson’s chairman and CEO; in January 2017 he and SC Johnson committed $150 million to found the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business – the largest single gift ever made to Cornell’s Ithaca campus and the second largest to name a U.S. business school.

“From Cornell’s earliest days and spanning five generations, members of the Johnson family have been thoughtful advisers and generous philanthropists, helping the university to achieve its highest aspirations,” said Cornell President Martha E. Pollack. “We will greatly miss Gene Johnson and her inspiring love for Cornell.”

A public memorial service for Johnson will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 11, in Racine. Expressions of sympathy can be addressed to the family at SC Johnson & Son Inc., 1525 Howe St., Racine, WI 53403.

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