Child psychologist Norine G. Johnson spent her career asking how women overcome crushing poverty to create better lives for their families. A photo in her office of her grandmother, Verna Gentry Collins Derby, helped guide her.
A teenage bride, her grandmother was widowed with four children in 1915 in Kentucky. Coping with debilitating depression after her husband, a local sheriff, was murdered in an ambush, she set his plate at the table for months afterward. Slowly, she pulled herself together, moved her family to Louisville, and went to nursing school.
“How did she do that?’’ Dr. Johnson wrote in an autobiography published in a 2001 collection of leading women in psychology. “Where do women with few material resources find the strength to persevere and succeed while maintaining families and friends? How can we as a society, as a profession, develop the knowledge base and skills to help young girls and women develop those strengths?’’
A past president of the American Psychological Association and the Massachusetts Psychological Association, she turned her grandmother’s story into the historical novel, “An American Family Myth,’’ published last year. Dr. Johnson died Nov. 19 in her Roslindale home of breast cancer. She was 75.
“She wanted to understand what made some people more resilient,’’ said Dorothy Cantor of Westfield, N.J., a friend and psychologist. “She was on a quest to find out what would give people strength.’’
A psychologist for almost four decades, Dr. Johnson turned the answers she and her colleagues found into several books, including “Shaping the Future of Feminist Psychology,’’ a 1997 book she coedited with Judith Worell. With Worell and Michael C. Roberts, she also edited a 1999 book for adolescent girls and their mothers, “Beyond Appearance: a New Look at Adolescent Girls.’’
In 2001, Dr. Johnson became the ninth woman to lead the American Psychological Association. She made several national appearances discussing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Raised in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Dr. Johnson was born during the Great Depression.
At Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis, from which Dr. Johnson graduated in 1952, she had “quiet elegance’’ and was a patient listener who liked to laugh, according to her prom date, Maynard Poland, who remained her friend over the years.
“She was one of those wonderful people who has left the world a better place by her time here,’’ he said.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from DePauw University, where she fought gender discrimination as a leader of the student senate.
Marrying soon after college, she put her career on hold to have children. Taking classes part time, she studied while her children slept. It took eight years to finish graduate work and a doctorate, which she received in 1972 from Wayne State University in Detroit.
Dr. Johnson worked in Cleveland before moving to Boston with her first husband. That marriage ended in divorce.
She became director of psychology at Kennedy Memorial Hospital for Children in Brighton, now Franciscan Hospital for Children. During 18 years there, Dr. Johnson created a department and increased the staff from herself and one psychologist to 35 positions.
Dr. Johnson left Kennedy in 1988 and went into private practice.
She married Boston Herald political columnist Wayne Woodlief in 1990 after a long courtship. He described her as a consummate nurturer and an ardent feminist who put up a bumper sticker in their house: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.’’
Woodlief helped edit her writing, and she shared her insights on political figures.
“It was a two-way street,’’ he said. “She was a wonderful, wonderful woman and I miss the hell out of her. I just loved her very much.’’
Dr. Johnson was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982. She was declared cancer-free by 1990, but her cancer returned in April 2010.
Dr. Johnson showed her daughters how to balance family and careers, advising them to put family first, said her daughter Kathryn.
“My mother was amazing,’’ said Kathryn of Westford, a marketing executive. “She managed it all. I’m not sure how.’’
Dr. Johnson’s daughter Cammarie, of Westborough, is a director of the New England Center for Children, a school for autism in Southborough. Her youngest, Margaret of Bethesda, Md., is a lawyer and associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
In addition to her husband and three daughters, Dr. Johnson leaves a stepson, Mark Woodlief of Portland, Ore.; a stepdaughter, Rawn Ugwoke, a missionary in Gambia; and 10 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday in Story Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Burial will be in the cemetery.
A week before she died, Dr. Johnson asked for visits from her close friends in psychology, seven women who met many years ago when they walked out of a dull conference and began chatting in a Florida courtyard.
They collaborated and traveled together over the years. More recently, the group demanded to hear the latest chapters of Dr. Johnson’s novel as fast as she wrote them, Cantor said.
At the end of her visit with Dr. Johnson, who lay on her bed surrounded by her three daughters, Dr. Johnson quipped: “Just remember, girls, I was a better APA president than she was.’’
“She was an amazing woman with tremendous grace and a clear consistency about who she was,’’ Cantor said.