Philanthropist Betty Wold Johnson Dies, Was Matriarch of the Johnson Family
By Anne Levin
Betty Wold Johnson, who provided major support to many local civic, community, and arts organizations, has died at the age of 99. The Hopewell resident, who formerly lived in Princeton at a house she recently donated to The Hun School, was the mother of New York Jets owners Christopher Johnson and Woody Johnson, who is the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Johnson was married to Robert Wood Johnson III, grandson of the founder of the Johnson & Johnson Company. They had five children before his death in 1970. She married Douglas Bushnell in 1978. He died in 2007.
Though she was quiet about it, Johnson’s generosity to local causes was well known. She recently donated $500,000 in honor of McCarter Theatre’s departing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann. She was a fan of McCarter productions and attended many performances and gala celebrations.
“I loved Betty Wold Johnson. I loved her generosity, her tough mindedness and her wisdom,” said Mann in a statement. “I reveled in her warmth which covered a spine of steel. If she believed in you, she let you know it, and she always set the bar high. Bless you, Betty, for all you asked of us and all you gave us. I am only one of many who will miss you sorely.”
When the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad broke ground for its new home last year, Johnson was on hand for the celebration. “The Johnson family has been engaged with the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad since 1939 when we stocked our first ambulance with medical supplies, many from Johnson & Johnson,” said Mark Freda, president of the squad. “And for many decades, Betty Wold Johnson continued to support us, most recently with a generous gift to our capital campaign for our new building. Something we were surprised to learn about Betty was her keen interest in building design. She clearly enjoyed touring our new building while still under construction last October, asking many detailed construction related questions. We are very pleased that she got to see the building as it came close to being completed.”
The Princeton University Art Museum was another recipient of Johnson’s generosity. “She was passionate about education and the arts, and particularly interested in art conservation,” said Director James Steward, who developed a friendship with Johnson. “Back when the museum was expanded in the eighties, she funded the conservation lab in our building. I had her come and look at it when we started planning our next planned expansion, to assure her that we would honor what she did.”
Steward last visited Johnson in January at her farm in Hopewell. “I had no hint that the end was coming,” he said. “She was frail, as a 99-year-old, but also strong and fully attentive. We visited close to two hours. I never got the sense that she was flagging.”
After becoming Princeton Public Library’s executive director in March. Jennifer Podolsky tried to arrange a meeting with Johnson, who has made major gifts to the library. But the COVID-19 crisis closed the library, and the meeting never took place.
“Mrs. Johnson’s reputation preceded her as one of the key figures responsible for the unprecedented two decades of growth and excellence enjoyed by Princeton Public Library,” Podolsky said in a statement. “Her fiscal generosity is apparent, but what I’ve learned from my colleagues here at the library and elsewhere in town is that her advice was also very valuable. Mrs. Johnson was very much a “big-picture” thinker.
‘In learning about her support for library capital and endowment campaigns, I was particularly intrigued by her Challenge for Building Stewardship, when she matched gifts for a dedicated fund for building upkeep. Part of her enormous legacy is that she wanted to ensure that the capital projects funded by her foundation were well cared for when she was gone. I know the library has taken her good advice and we hope we continue to exceed the expectations that accompanied her gifts.”
Johnson’s $11 million to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark was the single largest individual gift in its history. The Arts Council of Princeton, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York City Opera, the Nature Conservancy of New Jersey, Liberty Science Center, the Lupus Research Alliance, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation are among the other organizations she helped support.
Johnson was also a football fan. Raised in Minnesota, she grew up listening to and watching University of Minnesota Golden Gophers games with her father, Dr. Karl Christian Wold. According to an obituary in The New York Times, she was enthusiastic about her family’s purchase of the Jets. “Ms. Johnson used to refer to the Jets players as her ‘grandchildren.’ She was beloved by the coaches and the players, which was unique for someone in her position,” the obituary reads.
Two of Johnson’s five children survive her, as do 13 grandchildren.