On May 5, New Jersey lost preservationist and philanthropist Betty Wold Johnson at the age of 99. Many people who worked with Johnson or whose organizations benefited from Johnson’s efforts took time in the past three weeks to remember her considerable impact on their communities.

Linda Mead, president and chief executive of D&R Greenway, remembers many facets of the land trust’s enthusiastic supporter. “Betty Wold Johnson’s heart was always in the land and community of Hopewell, where she lived on land she permanently preserved with D&R Greenway.”

Mead said Johnson’s partnership was key to the success of the D&R Greenway’s campaign to save the land that had been the site of the St. Michaels Orphanage, now the 415 acre St. Michaels Farm Preserve.

“Betty saw this open land as key to conserving the bucolic character of this special community,” she said.

D&R Greenway has posted a short video, also found on its website, drgreenway.org, featuring Betty Wold Johnson filmed in her Hopewell home speaking about why it’s important to save land now.

Linda Mead remembers her professional friendship with Johnson, focusing on how she came to permanently preserve the 800 acres she had assembled on the northwest edge of the village of Hopewell. D&R Greenway held a legal education program on land preservation at its Johnson Education Center, and Mead invited Johnson to attend. At over 90 years of age she listened closely and then turned to Mead and said, “Let’s get busy.”

A few weeks later, Johnson invited Mead to take a tour of her land.

“On a sunny fall day in 2013, Betty Wold Johnson drove her golf cart up a hill built in a wide, open field on her Hopewell land. At that time, she was 92 years young. It was just she and I circling to the summit, where two swings were too inviting to resist,” Mead said. “We swung side-by-side, looking out over land where General George Washington and the Continental Army once encamped. The conversation we had while overlooking this historic land was revolutionary. Within months, Betty donated a conservation easement on her 800-plus acres of land, ensuring it would remain forever as she loved it.”

D&R Greenway CEO Linda Mead, former board chair Brian Breuel, Betty Wold Johnson, and former board chair Rich Goldman in an undated photo courtesy of D&R Greenway.

In part due to Johnson’s commitment and support, there are today a total of 1,200 acres of preserved land bracketing Hopewell Borough. D&R Greenway invites the public to celebrate the legacy of Betty Wold Johnson by walking on lands she helped preserve, especially at St. Michaels Farm Preserve on Princeton Avenue in Hopewell.

Johnson was also the first to donate to the creation of the David Knights Bridge over Bedens Brook, which leads from the Preserve’s iconic red barn to the Charles Evans Overlook with high, idyllic views of the historic town. Johnson joined D&R Greenway and friends from the community on the day that the new bridge was dedicated.

Ensuring clean water, local farms and conservation lands to create a quality of life for the people and wildlife of the region was a goal D&R Greenway held in common with Johnson, Mead says.

“Recently, as D&R Greenway faced the reality of dwindling public funding to preserve land, Betty’s substantial gift enabled the first transaction of our Land for Life Revolving Land Fund,” she said. “Fifty-two threatened acres were purchased and permanently protected with an agricultural easement. This property was recently sold to a family who now farms the land. The fund has been replenished to ensure preservation of further properties. Betty’s gifts continue to give, again and again.”

Johnson’s support ranged from McCarter Theatre Center to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; from The Hun School to Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center. Most recently, she supported the Princeton Area Community Foundation’s Covid-19 Relief Fund to help regional nonprofits supporting residents with food, shelter, and other services during this crisis.

“Betty will always be First Lady of Land Preservation. We are all the better for her having been among us,” Mead said.

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Johnson was also a key figure in the restoration project that changed Morven, the one-time governor’s mansion, into Morven Museum and Garden.

“In the early years, Betty was having a good time working with the state, treasurer, governors,” said Georgia Schley, Morven Museum & Garden’s first board president “She always loved the gardens, and what they mean to Morven’s history, and she was thrilled with the new building.”
Betty Wold Johnson, third from left, at Morven’s Stockton Education Center ribbon cutting, May 3, 2018, with (from left) Sky Morehouse, Morven trustee and pool house restoration architect Ronica Bregenzer and Morven Board Secretary Liza Morehouse. (Photo by Debra Lampert-Rudman.)

In the 1980’s, there was much discussion on “what should be done with Morven,” a historic building originally built by one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Stockton, and inhabited for many generations by his family. After 170 years of Stocktons residing at Morven, Robert Wood Johnson, Jr., his second wife, Maggi, and their daughter, Sheila, called it home from 1928 to 1944. As sisters-in-law, Sheila and Betty both became ardent supporters of Morven.

Schley says Betty Wold Johnson was invited to a meeting of four or five people interested in Morven back then. “We met in the very rundown sunroom — red carpet, dim lights, with the entire exterior requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair. We had learned that if we could restore the exterior, Morven could potentially become eligible for state funding and become a true museum,” she said.
“The next morning, I called her home to speak with her and was told that ‘Mrs. Johnson has gone to New York.’  I later found out that she had driven into New York to speak with the Johnson Foundation to request $400,000 for a challenge grant for Morven. We raised the other $400,000, but it was her money that got the whole thing going.”
Once Morven’s exterior was refurbished, Gov. Christie Whitman was petitioned to dedicate state funding for the interior restoration. Two million dollars of state funding was provided, and Johnson found herself involved in attending hearings and other meetings to develop the unique partnership between the private sector and the state.
Schley said details of this type of partnership were crafted by attorney Steve West and remain a model for private investors in public institutions today.
Subsequently, and largely through Mrs. Johnson’s support, Morven’s 19th century Carriage House restoration, its 20th century Pool House restoration (originally built during the Johnson family’s residence at Morven), and 21st century Stockton Education Center building were all brought to fruition.
At the May 13, 2020 meeting of Morven’s Board of Trustees, it was unanimously approved to make Betty Wold Johnson a trustee in memoriam of Historic Morven, Inc. Robert N. Wilson, today the chair of Morven’s Board, said, “Betty’s influence on Morven cannot be overstated. Without her enthusiasm, her forward thinking about Morven, not just 20 years in the future, but 200 years from now, we would not be where we are today. As a friend, I will miss her calls. She always began with ‘Honey, how is our project going?’ She cared deeply about the affairs of Morven.”
Jeffrey Vega, president and chief executive of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, also worked frequently with Johnson. He also issued a statement after her death.
“With heavy hearts, we mourn the passing of Mrs. Betty Wold Johnson. Some of you knew Mrs. Johnson very well, while others may have only known of her generous philanthropy. Regardless, I know you will join me in feeling a tremendous loss for the Community Foundation and our community. Mrs. Johnson leaves an indelible mark in our region, although she preferred that most of her altruism remain anonymous. She was an incredibly generous philanthropist, providing strong support for the arts, education, environment, healthcare, and social services in our region and beyond.
“Her support for the Princeton Area Community Foundation began from our inception when she was among the first donors to support the creation of the Community Foundation, as well as providing support for our operating endowment and being one of our early fundholders. That support continued over many years. In March, the Community Foundation reached out to Mrs. Johnson, telling her about our plans to create a COVID-19 Relief & Recovery Fund. She quickly agreed to become one of our earliest supporters with a $250,000 donation and allowed us to acknowledge her gift.
As the CEO of the Community Foundation, one of the wonderful duties I inherited from my predecessor, Nancy Kieling five years ago, was the opportunity to visit with Mrs. Johnson at her home to review her annual grantmaking from her endowed funds, housed at the Community Foundation. These funds will continue to support our community in perpetuity. You can read more about her generosity here.”