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.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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(10) comments

Bailey Jones

Oh no! Condolences to his family and friends. I really enjoyed his columns.

Susan Fennewald

A loss.

But that reminds me ... the Galveston master gardeners are having their spring plant sale now online.

If you've never bought plants at the master gardeners plant sale - you've been missing out.

A legacy of Dr. Johnson's. I remember him standing at the entrance as the plant sale opened and taking pictures of the crowd.

Charles Hughes

RIP Dr Johnson. So much wisdom and knowledge gone to glory. I enjoyed working with him as a supervisor with Galveston Co. Parks and Sr. Services. My crew would assist them setting up for plant sale at Carbide Park. He gave me a lot of tips on growing tomatoes, and guided us on pruning etc. throughout the parks in my district. He will be missed.

Lizzie Tish

[sad] This reader will miss Dr. William Johnson's gardening expertise and wisdom.

James Lippert

RIP Dr. Johnson. Many thanks for your honest efforts which shall benefit many in Galveston County for generations to come.

Marla Marek

Oh no, so sad RIP Mr. Johnson, you will be missed

Curtiss Brown

My heart sinks as I see this. This is a great loss to our community and the community of Agriculture Agents statewide. I worked directly with Dr. Johnson for many years not with plants but with budgets and department management. He was a great guy and a good friend. As a retiree, homeowner I found myself asking him questions, not about staffing and capital improvements but about my own plants around the house. In our last exchange of emails, I suggested he write a book built from his many columns. Dr. Johnson was a terrific asset to the News and a wonderful person. I will miss him.

Ron Shelby

One of the nicest people I've ever worked with. What a major loss for the community.

Diane Turski

So sad! I always looked forward to reading his column!

Gerhard Meinecke

He was not only an excellent botanist but also an excellent human being. Genuine thru and thru. Had great conversations with him. Miss him!

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