OBERLIN — The Oberlin community is mourning the loss of a community activist and watchdog.
Shirley R. Johnson passed away at 3:35 a.m. Friday at the age of 95. Johnson suffered from heart and kidney ailments, according to her daughter, Emmy Johnson.
Friends remembered Shirley R. Johnson as a fiery, no-nonsense woman who stood up for what was right.
“She was a very community-minded person, and she was known for attending every single City Council and school board meeting for years and years,” said Pat Murphy, executive director of the Oberlin Heritage Center. “She was known for stating her opinions forcefully, when merited, and she was very forceful about getting others involved.”
Johnson was one of the founding members of the North Central Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, an affiliate of the national ACLU that dates back to 1954.
The chapter’s most notable success was in 1987, when it represented members of a sixth-grade Elyria Schools gym class who were strip searched in an attempt to find missing rings and money. The chapter assisted in the ACLU’s suing of the Elyria Board of Education, which resulted in an out-of-court settlement.
Until her death, Johnson remained active in community matters, frequently submitting letters to the editor to The Chronicle-Telegram.
Johnson’s last letter to The Chronicle-Telegram was dated Dec. 13 and addressed her issues with a confidentiality pledge that Lorain City Council members were asked to sign regarding executive sessions. The pledge, requested last year by the administration of former Mayor Tony Krasienko, warned elected officials and public workers that disclosing confidential information would mean they were guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor charge.
Johnson wrote that she disagreed with Law Director Pat Riley’s contention that state law gives him the right to classify information secret and prosecute public officials for revealing secret information.
“One must conclude that Mr. Riley’s rationale is not only ‘overly broad and self-serving’ but also it does not serve the public interest when a law director can decide for himself when information relating to a business transaction is worthy of confidentiality or should be disclosed under provisions of the public’s right to know and long standing sunshine laws,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, Law Director Riley holds little respect for transparency in government. That is a shame.”
Eric Norenberg, Oberlin city manager, said Johnson believed strongly in making information available for the public, and she let him know it.
“She would pester us to make sure that meetings were open and available to the public and that they were well publicized so that people knew when they were happening, which is a great lesson to any city manager or city organization,” he said. “We were so fortunate to have Shirley as the conscience for the community.”
Johnson had been a mainstay at Lorain County commissioner meetings for years as well, questioning the reasons the commissioners would go into executive sessions and urging them to conduct as much county business in public as possible.
Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes, who serves as the commissioners’ primary attorney, said Johnson served an important role as a government watchdog even though she sometimes took him to task over open meetings and public records.
“There are few people who you’d say you’re proud to know, and she’s one of them,” Innes said. “We didn’t always agree on things, but she was a pleasure to debate.”
County Administrator Jim Cordes said even though Johnson sometimes was critical of how county business was handled, he always respected and liked her and her late husband.
“I don’t think Shirley was ever hostile to us,” Cordes said. “I always thought she put her positions and opinions in a way that enhanced what we did.”
Johnson’s husband, Douglas Johnson, died in July 2009 at the age of 92.
The couple, who some called “soul mates,” met at Antioch College and moved to Oberlin in 1947.
After his death, Johnson joked that she married her husband for his looks, and “he married me for my money — I had $1,000.”
Tony Marshall, former president of Oberlin school board, said Shirley R. Johnson used to talk to him about her time at Antioch College, where she was an active protester.
At Oberlin Schools, Johnson had opposed a policy to bring back the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Shirley was a no-nonsense person from Day One. She didn’t bite her tongue — ever,” he said. “She was all about just doing the right thing. She was a voice for people who had no voice.”
Marshall said Johnson used to talk candidly about dying. She and her husband were not religious, and Douglas Johnson’s body was donated to Case Western Reserve University’s medical school.
Shirley Johnson’s body will also be donated to Case Western, as was her wish, said her daughter. There will be no official ceremony.
“She used to say, ‘When I die, I don’t want any ceremony. When I’m dead, I’m dead, and that’s it,’ ” Marshall said.
Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter Brad Dicken and intern Mark Allain contributed to this report.