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Betty Johnson, 92; as MIT’s first lady, projected calm

Mrs. Johnson was known for being adept at keeping things orderly and efficient during trying times.

Mrs. Johnson was known for being adept at keeping things orderly and efficient during trying times.

When Betty Johnson became first lady at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her many responsibilities included inviting the entire incoming class of students into the president’s residence each year.

During student unrest in the 1960s and ’70s, however, being part of the family of Howard W. Johnson, MIT’s 12th president, became challenging to the point where she and her husband moved their three young children away from campus to protect them from Vietnam War protests.

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“She was really a gallant lady,” said Priscilla K. Gray, whose husband, Paul E. Gray, also formerly served as MIT president. “She put up with a lot of trouble. They had young children, so that was not easy. She was gracious and she survived under fire, so to speak.”

Mrs. Johnson, in whose name the MIT Women’s League established a fellowship to help undergraduates pursue environmental studies, died of heart failure Jan. 5 in her home at Brookhaven at Lexington retirement community. She was 92.

Her husband, who died in 2009, wrote in his memoir “Holding the Center” that during one antiwar protest “a four-foot length of steel pipe was thrown through a large window on the first floor” of the president’s residence on Memorial Drive and a protester “climbed up to another of our first floor windows. Betty was unruffled through most of this.”

Susan Hockfield, MIT’s president from 2004 to 2012, said in a statement that “Betty and Howard Johnson led MIT during perhaps its most tumultuous era. Mrs. Johnson’s warmth, kindness, and gracious good sense supported and magnificently amplified president Johnson’s leadership. Through the disruptions of the times, they successfully ‘held the center’ while events threatened to tear MIT, and America’s great institutions of higher education, from their foundations.”

Mrs. Johnson was accustomed to keeping things orderly and efficient in trying times. During World War II, she worked at Goodyear as an efficiency officer, her family said.

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“She was a very quiet woman, so refined and gracious,” said Kathryn Willmore, a former vice president and secretary of the MIT Corporation, who added that Mrs. Johnson had a “warm presence about her, which was just lovely.”

Born in Chicago, Elizabeth Weed grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and was diagnosed with polio as a child. She studied music at Ohio Wesleyan University, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

While working as a supervisor at a Chicago department store she met Howard Johnson, who was brought in as a consultant. They married in 1950.

When he went to work for the University of Chicago, she did, too, working in the office of campus personnel.

“She was strong and very capable, and they had very much a partnership,” said their daughter, Laura of Concord.

In 1955, MIT hired Mr. Johnson to teach and he became dean of the Sloan School of Management. He planned to leave for an executive post with Federated Department Stores when MIT persuaded him to take the president’s job.

Among Mrs. Johnson’s responsibilities as first lady was helping guide the staff of the president’s residence through social functions, such as entertaining visiting dignitaries.

“She just knew how to make people comfortable, and I think she did a lot of just inviting people to share their stories,” her daughter said.

Eventually, Mrs. Johnson and her husband decided to move out of the president’s residence. They bought a home in Wellesley to give the children a break from the protests of that era.

“She was a kind of a refuge for Howard from all that turmoil,” said former colleague William Pounds, a dean emeritus of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Willmore said Mrs. Johnson “had an underlying strength of character” as she cared for the well-being of her family and carried out the duties of the president’s wife.

“She did it with a kind of equanimity that I am not sure a lot of people can do as well, and was just a rock of support for president Johnson during all that time,” Willmore said.

At that time, the president’s wife served as honorary chairwoman of the Women’s League, which helped organize volunteers to teach English to students who arrived from other countries to attend MIT.

Mrs. Johnson’s husband stepped down as president in 1971 and then served as chairman of the MIT Corporation until 1983.

“We took on a whole new range of social responsibilities with the corporation post,” he wrote in his memoir. “Betty perfected the corporation lunch that followed the commencement in a way that became a tradition. As commencement took place in early June, she was able to prevail on the caterers to have Atlantic salmon, served cold with a dill sauce, a good white wine, and fresh strawberries for dessert. This was a pattern that pleased all of us after several hours of sitting and watching the graduates receive their degrees.”

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Johnson leaves two sons, Stephen of Medford and Bruce of Mendocino, Calif.; a brother Robert Weed of Kansas City; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be announced. Burial was in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

Away from campus, the Johnsons were birdwatchers who had a life list of spotting more than 600 species. They often visited homes they owned in New Hampshire and Maine, and they spent winters on Sanibel Island in Florida.

Mrs. Johnson, who also was a part of a group of women who gathered to do needlepoint, was “easy to know and easy to be with,” said her longtime friend Helen Pounds, who added that “she was always very helpful if you had a problem.”

Emma Stickgold can be reached at estickgoldobits@gmail.com.

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