Schenectady gathers to remember longtime public servant Karen Johnson

Family, friends and former colleagues share fond memories of 'a life well lived'
Proctors MainStage served as the setting for a celebration of Karen Johnson's life on Thursday afternoon.
Proctors MainStage served as the setting for a celebration of Karen Johnson's life on Thursday afternoon.

SCHENECTADY — Don and Kay Ackerman got to know Karen Johnson during her 1975 campaign for City Council. 

During their time on the stump, Don quickly realized their soon-to-be lifelong friend was a great listener; she cared about what people were saying, and had the gift of consensus. 

“She had an amazing ability to summarize the conversation and find common ground,” Don said. 

Dave Roberts recalled campaigning with the candidate when four hopefuls ran together as a bloc. 

Within six months, the Democrats hit every street in Schenectady with Johnson dropping onto front porches, lending her the nickname “Banzai Johnson.”

It wasn’t long before a portrait of Johnson emerged at a celebration of her life on Thursday at Proctors: A passionate, deeply dedicated public servant who never shied away from a task, however large or small, as long as it would benefit the community. 

“She was just all-in whatever she was doing,” said Kent Johnson, her son.

Speakers recalled Johnson, who died in June at the age of 77, as a leader who never sought credit, but worked quietly behind the scenes to make an impact on the city she loved.

“She loved you, and you clearly loved her,” said Eric Johnson, her son.

Matt Cutler, senior rabbi with Congregation Gates of Heaven, noted the position of the lectern: Not in the center, but off to the side in a space that “lets other people shine.”

Johnson served as the city’s first female mayor from 1984 to 1992, and before that, on the City Council, being elected in 1975. 

Afterwards, she served on the county Legislature, numerous boards and remained involved in projects designed to bolster community arts, music and education projects. 

Thursday’s service, said Eric, was designed to be a celebration of the entire community with the goal of inspiring others to continue the positive upward trajectory of the city, and “to be inspired to move forward together.” 

Johnson herself had a hand crafting the celebration, from the jazz soundtrack to the downtown location that she not only labored to save from the wrecking ball, but where she also served as a long-time director of planned giving. 

Cutler and Proctors CEO Phillip Morris whisked attendees through the fast-paced service, which was anchored by a five-part documentary-style video recalling different aspects of Johnson’s life and career through testimonials from friends and colleagues accrued during her five decades of public service.

Speakers also delivered live comments. 

Many of the strands repeatedly wove through elements of her life — like rolling up her sleeves and getting to work. 

Morris said Johnson didn’t mislead people and was clear-eyed about the city’s challenges, which included contending with downsizing of GE, stabilizing the tax base and hatching strategies to save a downtown that contained little except “two failing dollar stores.”

“She was honest about what she saw and the solutions she saw,” he said.

In a segment titled “Getting Things Done,” Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation Director Jim Salengo recalled getting his car stuck in the snow as a recent college grad.

The then-mayor emerged from her Stockade home to help him dig it out. 

Johnson also served as a board member and chair of MVP Health Care.

Denise Gonick, former CEO of MVP Health Care, hailed Johnson as a strong female leader, and said she “exemplified the ability to wield power for good.” 

At the end of the ceremony, Cutler asked attendees to stand up if they served with Johnson in elected office; if they disagreed or solicited advice from her, or felt empowered.

Did they love her?

By then, everyone in the room was on their feet. 

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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