Dr. William Johnson, a well-known and respected horticulturist, teacher and county extension agent, died Friday. A cause of death wasn’t immediately given.
He was 70 years old.
Johnson was the administrator of the county’s AgriLife Extension Office, an education service managed by Texas A&M University to share knowledge about a number of agriculture-related topics. He began running the extension office in 1997.
Born in Virginia, Johnson attended the University of Maryland and received a doctorate degree in plant pathology from Oklahoma State University before making his way to Texas.
During his time in Galveston, Johnson helped guide tremendous growth of the county’s extension programs.
In 1989, there were nine participants in the Galveston County Master Gardener program. In recent years, there have been more than 200 active certified master gardeners, who as a group volunteer more than 30,000 hours annually.
Johnson also led teams of experts diagnosing tree and plant problems on the Gulf Coast after hurricanes, floods and freezes.
In 2011, he was honored by the National Association of County Agricultural Agents, which awarded him its Superior Service Award for Distinguished Career. The award is given to people “based upon outstanding professional growth, program effectiveness, leadership ability, loyalty to Extension work, and civic and community involvement.”
In 2017, he was honored for his work by the Galveston City Council with a proclamation and honorary holiday.
Former Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough said Johnson “made a significant difference” to the community.
“Every corner of the county has benefited from his programs, his expertise, his dedication to efforts and details,” Yarbrough said, at the time.
Johnson’s motto was “Knowledge not shared is knowledge lost,” Yarbrough said.
In 2018, Johnson received the Regents Fellow Service Award from Texas A&M University, one of the college’s highest honors. The award recognizes system employees who have provided exemplary professional service to society that has created large and lasting benefits to Texas and beyond.
Johnson was an accomplished horticulturist, authority in entomology and plant pathology, said Don Wilkerson, a professor and extension specialist at Texas A&M University and colleague of Johnson’s for many years, who nominated Johnson for the university’s award.
The Galveston County master gardener program is recognized as one of the most innovative and prolific programs of its kind in the United States, and the monthly newsletter the group publishes rivals commercial magazines, Wilkerson said.
More than that, Johnson was nice person, Wilkerson said.
He was honest and forthright,” Wilkerson said. “He was selfless. He was quite the leader. You would never hear William brag on himself. He would always brag on his staff and on other people.”
Johnson was also a regular columnist for The Galveston County Daily News. His Green Thumb column ran the gamut on topics around planting advice, from when people should do their seasonal plantings to the danger of stinging caterpillars, to differences in plants that make a tree a tree and a shrub a shrub.
Mary Lou Kelso, of Galveston, worked with Johnson through the Master Gardener program for more than 20 years. Kelso said Johnson was known for his motivational sayings, including insisting everyone in his classes get along with each other and treat their colleagues and classmates with respect.
“Everybody needed to bring something to the table” was one of Johnson’s sayings , Kelso said.
“I teased him each year that after he retired, he would probably open up the Dr. Johnson Manners School in the business community or corporate world,” Kelso said
He never retired.
In his final column, published Feb. 9, Johnson opined on whether people who schedule their plants by the phases of the moon are following hocus-pocus or have latched onto some age-old wisdom.
Lunar scheduling wasn’t part of the education he received in earning a doctorate in plant pathology, he wrote.
“I would not castigate, however, anyone who plants by moon phases,” Johnson wrote. “I find that condemning an age-old practice, which has not been undoubtedly proven or disproved, is risky and foolish.”
Not everything strange is wrong, he said. Potatoes grown in a lab will still exhibit a growth rhythm that reflects the lunar pattern, he wrote before wishing his readers good luck.
“May the moon, good weather and common sense make your 2021 gardening efforts an enjoyable and successful endeavor,” Johnson wrote.