Ida Johnson was described as a public servant and community icon by her peers and people who have worked closely with her on community projects.
She died on Monday at the age of 66 after fighting an illness.
Johnson was perhaps most known for her advocacy for children like foster youth, teen mothers and children from low-income families, in roles such as a trustee on the Merced Union High School District governing board and a coach in the Merced Equals Program, sponsored by the Lawrence Hall of Science at University of California, Berkeley. She also is credited for the thousands of dollars in grant money she brought to the community.
Johnson is survived by her husband Larry, her daughter, son, step daughter and four grandchildren.
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Johnson was born in Nashville and moved to Merced when her husband began working at East Campus Education Center, her daughter Rukiya Johnson said. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco and a master’s degree from Chapman University, according to her online biography.
Rukiya Johnson described her mother as well traveled, noting she made multiple trips to Africa as well as Israel and Europe. She also attended two presidential inaugurations.
Growing up, Rukiya said her mother was fashion forward and loved to cook. “She exposed my brother and I to so many things,” Rukiya Johnson said. “There was nothing that was out of reach for us.”
Johnson was dedicated to her job with the California Department of Education, commuting back and forth to Sacramento each day for years.
“She was respected, admired, looked up to,” Rukiya said. “My mom was amazing.”
Johnson’s son, Linje Johnson, said his mother took challenges head on. “She’d always say, ‘You have to make a way.’”
News of Johnson’s death sent a ripple through the community this week.
“She’s a huge loss,” said Michelle Allison, a good friend of Johnson’s. “She was an exceptional human being. She was a beautiful light to this community.”
“She blessed the community in so many ways,” Allison said. “My heart still hurts. She gave so much of herself to this community.”
Necola Adams, who described her relationship with Johnson being like sisters, said Johnson was particularly caring for foster youth and teen mothers and would take them under her wing.
“Ida was a mentor for a lot of people, especially children in the community. She would look out for children in the community and make sure they had opportunities to further their lives.”
Johnson helped multiple community organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Club, 4-H and the League of Women Voters, Adams said.
Adams and Johnson had a close bond as well, and for years they worked side-by-side on community events. "Ida was like my big sister," Adams said. :There was a time where you didn’t see me without Ida, and you didn't see Ida without me.”
A woman like Johnson is “one in a million,” Adams said.
“She was an icon in this community,” Adams said. “You just don’t find people like her.”
MUHSD Superintendent Alan Peterson said Johnson, who served on the school board from 2005 to 2013, was a strong proponent for the district’s newest campus, El Capitan High School.
“She understood that a third Merced high school would increase student involvement opportunities for all,” he said.
Peterson said district leaders and staff were shocked and saddened to hear of Johnson’s death.
“Ida was a fierce advocate for students and staff, she supported us in difficult times, and always pushed our district to be on the cutting edge,” he said.
Peterson added: “Ida loved to see students and staff achievements celebrated, her smile was infectious, her presence will be missed, but her influence will live on.”
Johnson was also a collaborator with Building Health Communities Merced and one of their initiatives, Cultiva La Salud, said Claudia Corchado, program manager for Cultiva La Salud.
Many people looked up to her as a leader and a community advocate, she said.
“She was one of those people who was a mover and a shaker and tried to improve the quality of life as well as she could,” Corchado said. “I really admire that she stuck to her guns. She was just genuine all the time.”
A public service for Johnson will be held later this month in Nashville.
Monica Velez: 209-385-2486
Johnson’s family requests donations in lieu of flowers be made to Habitat for Humanity of Merced County, at P.O Box 423, Atwater and the United Negro College Fund, P.O. Box 55040 Boston, Mass. 02205.