Dorothy Johnson, an islander whose efforts to bring health care to the island in the 1970s still influence its delivery today, died at her home on Vashon last week. She was 93.
Johnson’s oldest child, Lotus, described her mother as a woman who believed there was no such thing as impossible or good enough. Those who worked and volunteered alongside Johnson say that characteristic came through when she helped assess the island’s health care needs, sought to establish the first health center and secured Sunrise Ridge for the community as a home for both a clinic and Granny’s Attic. During those years, Opal Montague worked closely with Johnson and last week spoke about her work — and her strong will.
“Dorothy didn’t let people say no,” Montague recalled.
In fact, both women were such a force in the history of island health care that former U.S. Rep Jim McDermott honored them for their work on Vashon in 2010.
Johnson’s history in the Northwest began in 1951, when she, her husband, David Johnson, and their three young children moved to Seattle from Chicago, lured by a Boeing job for David. They both had a desire to live in a more rural environment, Lotus said, and with the help of a real estate agent and young children in tow, Dorothy found a home for the family not far from Vashon town, where she lived up until her death on Nov. 20. The couple added two more children to their family once on the island, but found time to open a dance hall in Burton, which offered ballroom dancing lessons and music.
In the 1960s, Dorothy Johnson took part in a community effort called Operation Jigsaw, which assessed the island’s needs and goals; it resulted in the first comprehensive plan for Vashon. At that time, Vashon was considered medically underserved — and Johnson, Montague and others set about changing that.
Montague recalls that time. The island had two doctors, and one announced he was leaving. With that, the remaining physician said he would have to leave as well, or he would be up all night every night tending to patients.
“It became apparent we needed help,” Montague said.
As an outcome of Operation Jigsaw, Johnson formed a board of directors and asked Montague to serve on it. With support from the University of Washington, they organized a group of islanders who went door to door, interviewing residents to find out more about their health care needs. In 1973, that resulted in a grant from the UW, which allowed the board to rent a small house in Burton — behind the current Harbor Mercantile — with three nurse practitioners and a part-time doctor to back them up.
That was the beginning of the Vashon-Maury Health Services Center, now Neighborcare on Vashon. A group of women, who served as the Health Center Volunteers, served as clinic receptionists and clean-up crew.
Once the clinic outgrew the Burton home, it moved into town to what is now the Fair Isle Animal Clinic. Several doctors worked there over the years, Montague said, as part of the National Health Service Corps, receiving help with their education expenses in return for working in a medically underserved area.
But the clinic soon began to outgrow that building as well, and Johnson once again took action.
“Dorothy noticed first that Sunrise Ridge was up for grabs,” Montague said.
As many islanders know, the area was a former Nike missile site, and the government had never turned over a military base to a private group before. Undeterred, Johnson worked with a federal government employee to request the use of that space.
In 1976, that wish was granted when the Department of Health, Education and Welfare determined the board could rent the 14-acre site for $1 per year for 31 years. That period ended in 2007, when it was deeded over to the Sunrise Ridge board.
In the meantime, the Health Center Volunteers had continued to support the clinic. Instead of volunteering as receptionists, they held plant sales and began a thrift store and then in 1975 moved it to a portion of the Sound Food building, which the Johnsons leased at the time.
In a 2016 Voice of Vashon video about the history of Granny’s Attic, Johnson speaks about that time period.
“The volunteers were selling whatever they could to make money,” she said. “After that, we made space for them up at the site, so they could have a big place to work, and they were thrilled.”
Both Montague and Johnson served on the Sunrise Ridge board for many years after the clinic opened in 1978. Dr. Gary Koch, a longtime island physician recalled one incident with Johnson that he termed a fairly typical story.
The clinic had received a grant for renovations to make it easier for disabled people to access and bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. At the same time, providers wanted to make the clinic more functional and explored avenues for that as well. Those improvements were too costly to take on, Koch recalled, and not many changes were ultimately made. Johnson, however, saw to it that automatic doors were installed. They came from an unlikely place. Thriftway had renovated the front of its store and was giving away its old doors. Johnson was insistent the clinic get and install them for the clinic.
“Seventeen or 18 years later, we have still got them,” Koch said with a laugh. “That was totally Dorothy. She steamrolled that through.”
Johnson stepped down from the Sunrise Ridge board in 2010, but was not finished lending support to the clinic. In 2014, having recently turned 90, she ran for unofficial mayor to raise funds for improvements to the helicopter pad at Sunrise Ridge.
“This will be my last act to help them out,” she said at the time.
Now, decades after she began her efforts, the clinic is still located at Sunrise Ridge, although under the current Neighborcare management, an extensive renovation or relocation is likely. As for Granny’s Attic, which supported the work of the clinic for decades before changing to support broader health care programs and services, it moved from its spot at Sunrise Ridge just two years ago, nearly 40 years after it opened at Sunrise Ridge. At the store, above Business Manager Tim Johnson’s desk is a photo of himself with Dorothy Johnson — a Johnson and Johnson photo, he calls it, although the two are unrelated.
“She had a real vision to bring the Sunrise Ridge site and Granny’s together,” Tim Johnson said. “Without her, we are not here.”
He said Dorothy Johnson did not stop into the store often, but when the Voice of Vashon video was shot last year she came by.
“She had a purpose and drive that was palpable,” he said. “You could tell she was a force.”
Survivors include her children and their spouses: Lotus and Barbara Smith of Vashon, Michael Johnson and Pamela Shier of Pennsylvania, Susan Johnson of San Diego, Alan and Barbara Johnson of Snoqualmie and Roger Johnson and Sherry Johnson of Everett. Additional survivors include her sister and husband, Judie and Bill Rady, six grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
A remembrance of Dorothy Johnson’s life will be held in January; an announcement will be forthcoming. An online guest book can be signed at islandfuneral.com.