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As a young person growing up in St. Mary, Montana, Margy Johnson’s hometown was located on the western border of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. She grew up with hard-working parents in a loving family that operated Johnson of St. Mary, a restaurant owned by her family for many years and operated today by her sister, Kristin.
During her childhood, Johnson loved listening to her Dad’s stories of Alaska and hearing her mother read his letters from Shemya, where he had been stationed during World War II. “Mother kept all the letters from Dad in a little bundle carefully wrapped with a satin ribbon. The letters carried a sense of mystery and they had little parts cut out by military censors. Listening to them, I knew I would someday go to Alaska.”
Johnson graduated from high school in 1966, got married and at age eighteen and took a different route than her father in coming to Alaska. Along with her Air Force husband, she headed up the Alaska Highway. However, unlike her father, she never left. Her contribution to Alaska can be summed up in this manner: she is a driving force in Alaska’s growth and economic progress and her public service and community involvement have enriched the lives of many Alaskans.
Coming to Alaska was like coming home and the State gave her opportunities she wouldn’t have had anywhere else, Johnson says. “It is a great big, grand, beautiful place, Alaska, and I love being a part of it. People either live where they are born, or choose where to live, but in my case, Alaska chose me. It embraced me when I came here as a young woman and it still embraces me. I came here right after Statehood and was able to watch history being written right before my eyes!”
Arriving in Anchorage, Johnson worked an office job at an engineering firm. In 1972, her son, Wade Pitts, was born and she divorced her husband. “As a single mom, I did whatever was necessary to pay the rent and feed my son. I worked at a dress shop downtown and sold ivory trinkets on Fourth Avenue.”
When construction started on the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline in 1974, Johnson got a job at the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) to monitor union recruitment and dispatching of Alaska natives to construction jobs on the Pipeline. While at AFN, she established close relationships with native elders and leaders and during her employment there, Johnson began a life-time interest in collecting Alaskan artifacts and art work. Today, she has a remarkable collection of unique Alaskana.
Gail Schubert, president and CEO, Bering Straits Native Corporation, remembers that Johnson got to know Alaska’s native people and their strengths and concerns at a critical juncture – right after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed in 1971. “Margy also developed a true respect and appreciation of our cultures. She has been a strong supporter of Alaska native artists and her collection of art is a testament to that,” Schubert says.
Today, Johnson has a remarkable collection of unique Alaskana. In fact, her knowledge and fondness for Alaska native arts and crafts led to a contract with the Smithsonian Institution to accompany a group of Alaska native artists and dancers to the 1976 Festival of American Folklife in Washington, DC.
One of her jobs at that time was buying fish eggs on the Yukon for. She needed a letter of credit from an American Bank so she went to National Bank of Alaska. She didn’t get the letter of credit, but there she met Dick Borer and in 1978 they were married and decided to move to Cordova.
They purchased and managed the Reluctant Fisherman Inn, a local gathering place for residents and visitors alike. She said “after all those years of growing up in one, there I was in Cordova, running another restaurant.” Anyone fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to stay at the Reluctant or spend time with Margy while there, soon understood her deep commitment to the people of Prince William Sound and to Alaska.
It was during her years in Cordova that Johnson began her life and career of many “firsts”: she was the first woman mayor of Cordova, elected to three terms; the first woman president of the Cordova Chamber of Commerce and the first woman president of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce.
Life in Cordova revolved around salmon fishing and Johnson soon fell in love with the fresh Copper River salmon and noted that the fish did not get the attention they deserved. “For so many years we had stuck that magnificent fish into a can or shipped it frozen to Japan. Once we got it out of the can, we realized how good it was.”
While serving as president of the Cordova Chamber of Commerce, Johnson began working with Alaska Airlines, various fishing groups and Trident Seafoods of Seattle to promote the region’s fresh salmon. “Margy would place a box of fish under her arm and go up and down the West Coast, trying to convince high-end restaurants and retailers of the fine taste of fresh salmon,” said John Garner, a vice president at Trident Seafoods.
Two companies were crucial for these promotions. “Trident provided fresh fish and Alaska Airlines flew me to any place I wanted to go,” Johnson said. “We held many salmon and wine parings in Lower 48 restaurants. Sometimes it was just me and a fish, and I often slept at airports.”
The hard work paid off. It increased the cachet and allure of Copper River sockeye salmon, elevating it to elite status in restaurants across the nation. “Not only did Johnson promote the fish, she also helped arrange the logistics of moving the fish from the off-road remote community of Cordova by seeking help from Alaska Airlines as well as Lynden Transport and Alaska Marine Lines,” Garner says.
Garner credits Johnson for transforming the market for Copper River fish by helping create domestic demand. “Before Margy came along, we froze our Copper River salmon for export to Japan. Today, 100 percent of our king salmon and 90 percent of the sockeye are sold fresh in the domestic market.”
The promotions of Copper River fish, such as the Copper River Nouveau which Johnson helped to establish, also helped increase domestic sales of other Alaska salmon, Garner says. Later, as the Director of the Office International Trade, Johnson travelled to foreign capitals, such as Tokyo and Seoul, working to expand foreign sales of Alaskan salmon.
Alaska Airlines flies a lot of salmon out of the State, including the first catch of Copper River salmon. In 2005, it paid homage to Alaska’s salmon by painting one on one of their 737-400 airplanes and named it “Salmon-30-Salmon”. “That great fish on the plane was just a dream in my heart. I presented the idea to John Kelly, who was the Alaska Airlines chairman at the time,” Johnson says.
In addition to her love of fish and the fishing industry, Johnson is also realistic about the need for developing and managing all of Alaska’s natural resources and is well aware that the oil industry is vital to the State. “We are essentially a resource state. But I like reasonably-paced development. Government should be the gentle breeze on the back of business and not a stiff wind of opposition. The State and our industries – oil, timber, mining and fish – all need to be partners.”
As a member of the newly organized Prince William Sound Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council which was formed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Johnson was instrumental in trying to find the truth after the destruction in the Sound caused by the oil spill in 1989. Through the work with the PWSAC, she met a Valdez neighbor, Bill Walker, and they became life-long friends. Because of the differing opinions about the damage caused by the spill, and the lack of concrete information in Alaska, Johnson was part of a group that traveled to Sullom Voe in the Shetland Islands to look at the North Sea oil facilities and how they handled their industry. “They had oil production there but also a safe environment for many years and we wanted to see what safeguards they had that we lacked” she said.
Governor Bill Walker, former mayor of Valdez, was also on the trip to the Shetland. “During our discussions, Margy made sure the discussion stayed focused and everyone had a chance to voice their opinion,” he recalls.
Information gathered from the Shetlands and other places helped bring many changes to the oil industry’s operations in Prince William Sound. “Today we have escort vessels, double-hulled tankers and depots of equipment around the Sound to dispatch if it occurs again. You simply cannot beat citizen involvement,” Johnson says. Today, there are regional oil spill response organizations, escort vessels and equipment depots strategically placed around the coastlines of Alaska.
The oil spill changed her town. “Our town expanded to meet the demands of the disaster but it was taking a long time to get back together.” Johnson wanted Cordova to become a community again and get back to mundane things such as concern for streets, water and sewer, and schools – the nuts and bolts of a community. So – she ran for mayor in 1990 and helped pull the town together again.
“It was a hard-won contest and I won by one vote. When my opponent demanded a recount, I picked up another vote. So I won by two votes.” Johnson went on to win the next election and another after a three-year hiatus. “Cordova was a perfect place to raise Wade. We had fishing, skiing, school sports, the swim team and the encompassing sense of belonging to life in a small town,” said Margy.
When Frank Murkowski was elected Governor of Alaska, Johnson moved to Anchorage to work in his administration as Director of International Trade. In this position, she continued her quest of selling Alaska salmon all over the world. She was the perfect “pitch man” for Alaska in this position!
No story about Johnson is complete without mentioning her famous hats. The hats into being a few years ago when she had cancer. She buys hats in vintage shops and friends bring them back to her from their travels. Her hats number “around one hundred”. And – these hats all serve a purpose.
After losing a brother and sister to cancer, Johnson was not surprised to be diagnosed with breast cancer herself. Her cancer was caught early, and thanks to the support she received from friends and family, she soon put cancer in her rear view mirror. Cancer changed her though and she wanted to give others the same understanding and compassion that her friends had given her.
After her cancer was cured, Johnson began working with cancer patients at the Providence Cancer Center in Anchorage. Another of Johnson’s passions is mermaids and her home in Anchorage is named “The Enchanted Mermaid”. Johnson often invites cancer patients to her home and gives them a choice of hats to wear and provides them with a lovely high tea. Somehow, sharing tea, attired in a grand hat, puts a smile on the face and Johnson is able to explain various cancer treatments and provide friendship. She says that “cancer is a club you never want to get an invitation to join, but once you are in, it is good to have friends”.
These high teas have become a coveted invitation and many friends and acquaintances have been blessed to spend special time with Johnson at “The Enchanted Mermaid” where lively discussions revolve around such topics as local and state politics, best places to pick berries, direction for Alaska’s fiscal future and other pertinent topics of the da
Over the years, Johnson has been involved with many organizations and in activities throughout the State. She is a life-time member of the Pioneers of Alaska; has served on the Board of Directors of the First National Bank of Alaska for over fifteen years; serves on both the BP Alaska Citizen’s Advisory Board and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company Advisory Board; serves on the Board of the Ted Steven’s Foundation; is on the Advisory Board for Breast Cancer Focus Alaska; serves as a mentor for Leadership Anchorage and is the Honorary Chair of the Jewish Cultural Gala Committee.
Johnson is the 2013 recipient of the William A. Egan “Outstanding Alaskan of the Year” Award, by the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce “Athena” Award in 2010 and the YWCA “Woman of Achievement” Award in 2002.
Johnson was recognized by His Holiness John Paul, for helping people suffering from alcoholism. She was also honored by her work in reaching out to those with breast cancer and always being there from Breast Cancer Focus.
Johnson is the Executive Vice President of the Alaska Dispatch News (a position she describes as “Chief of Stuff”) and continues to help move our State onward and upward. As Norman Vaughn used to say – “It is a marvelous adventure.”
In spite of all accolades, tributes and recognition, Johnson says her favorite title in life is that of “Mon and Grandmother”. She says she raised a truly remarkable son, who is now married to Nicole, a woman filled with kindness, and they have graced her with a perfect grandson by the name of Tristan.
Margy Johnson is a unique Alaskan. We pride ourselves on having a country full of characters and Johnson certainly fits this respected description! Her public service and community involvement have enriched the lives of many Alaskans.
Biographical information written and compiled by Gail Phillips, January 2016
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/PzUGsBLmBsI
1. Margy Johnson’s personal business resumes
2. Alaska Business Monthly – “Margy Johnson – A Driving Force in Alaska’s growth and success” by
Shehla Anjum, published November 7, 2013
3. Anchorage Chamber of Commerce – “William A. Egan Outstanding Alaskan of the Year” award
4. Nomination form submitted by Gail Phillips, 2016 nominee
5. Personal interviews with Gail Phillips, December 2015
6. Personal emails with Gail Phillips, December 2015 and January 2015
7. Alaska Dispatch News – February 15, 2015
8. Alaska Dispatch News – “The 49th Estate: Land of Enchanted Mermaids” by Bryan Dunagan,
November 01, 2010