Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 died peacefully at her home in Cincinnati on Sept. 18, 2017, at the age of 95. Betty holds a unique place in the history of Wellesley College—the first woman and first alumna to serve as chair of the Board of Trustees. From the College’s opening in 1875 until 1981, when Betty was elected, the Wellesley board had always been led by a man. Since Betty held the office, all subsequent board chairs have been alumnae. Betty paved the way.
In describing Betty’s leadership, Nannerl Overholser Keohane ’61, Wellesley’s 11th president, stated: “Betty was a superb board chair, bringing members of the board together as a team, and making all of us aware of the importance of our work for our college. I came to know her as a colleague and a friend, and as my ‘boss’ during my first four years as Wellesley’s president. She was a supportive chair of the board, a very welcome partner for a novice president. She taught me a good deal about administration, with clear and helpful criticism when that was needed, and thoughtful praise when that was warranted.”
Betty arrived at Wellesley from Cincinnati. Her leadership abilities soon became apparent. She was president of her freshman house, Dower, and then, house president in Tower. In 1943, she was among the first group of students in the Wellesley Washington Internship program. Betty graduated in 1944 as a Durant Scholar and Phi Beta Kappa.
Betty’s postgraduate work at Haverford College following Wellesley was interrupted when she went to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s displaced persons operation in England, France, and Germany. She returned to Haverford and completed her M.A. in 1947, and in 1948 was married to Harvard Law School-educated attorney Morse Johnson. Family was very important to Betty. She is survived by two daughters, a son-in-law, and one granddaughter.
Although Betty and Morse made their home in Cincinnati and were extremely involved in the civic and cultural life there, no activities seemed as meaningful to Betty as her Wellesley-connected ones.
From 1970 until 1981, Betty served as vice-chair of the board, working alongside Chair Nelson Darling, Jr., and in 1981, the leadership of the Board of Trustees was placed in Betty’s wise and devoted hands. I was especially grateful to have had the opportunity to serve as a trustee under Betty’s capable leadership. When she called to ask if I would succeed her as chair of the board, she assured me that her guidance and counsel could continue as long as I wished, and it did. Our shared experiences became the basis for a long and special friendship.
Betty’s eloquence was legendary, as was her service to the College. It seems fitting to end this tribute to her with some of the words she spoke at Wellesley’s 1985 commencement as she ended 18 years of service as a trustee and four years as chair. Her words seem to reflect her deep devotion to our College and to all that it teaches. They also reflect how she led her life, and seem as relevant today as when she spoke them. Speaking to the graduating class, she said:
“You have been imbued through a founding force with what Margaret Clapp used to call ‘our divine guilt.’ You will be impelled to wage endless efforts for civic literacy and peace, for the cultural development of your communities and the nourishment of their poor. Don’t neglect political participation, join a party, run for public office and support those who do. Above all, remember this beautiful place: Tend it, keep it whole and good, so that others may come after us—to be imbued with the same intense passion to be ‘nobly useful.’”