A driving force in Alaska’s growth and success
Margy Johnson is an Iconic Alaskan.
© 2013 Chris Arend Photography
Her father sailed on a leaky liberty ship to Alaska during World War II. He went to Shemya to help build runways to beat back the Japanese invasion. At eighteen, Margy Johnson took a different route than her father. She graduated from high school in 1966, got married, and headed up the Alaska Highway for Alaska with her Air Force husband. But unlike her father, Johnson never left and became a driving force in Alaska’s growth and success.
Johnson has achieved a lot since coming to Alaska: The first woman mayor of Cordova, elected to three terms; the first woman president of the Cordova Chamber of Commerce; served on the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council; and director of the International Office of Trade during Governor Frank Murkowski’s administration.
Now retired, she still keeps busy. She is on the community advisory boards for BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and is a director for First National Bank Alaska, a position she has held since 1993.
In 1966, North Slope oil lay untapped in the ground, Alaska salmon came in tin cans, and Alaska Natives faced disdain. But changes soon started. Passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 empowered Alaska Natives, oil began to flow with the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1977, and, later, fresh Alaska salmon gained fame as a gourmet food, sought by chefs everywhere.
St. Mary, Montana, Johnson’s hometown on the western border of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, is idyllic, but her life was not. She grew up with hard-working parents in a loving family that operated Johnson’s of St. Mary, a restaurant now run by her sister Kristin.
During childhood, Johnson loved listening to her dad’s stories of Alaska and hearing her mother read his letters from Shemya. “Mother kept all the letters from Dad in a little bundle carefully wrapped with a satin ribbon. The letters carried a sense of mystery and they had little parts cut out by military censors. Listening to them I knew I would someday go to Alaska.”
Coming to Alaska was like coming home, and the state gave her opportunities she wouldn’t have had anywhere else, Johnson says. “It’s a great big, grand, beautiful place, Alaska, and I love being part of it. People either live where they are born, or choose where to live, but in my case Alaska chose me. It embraced me when I came here as a young woman, and it still embraces me.”
For the first few years she worked an office job at an engineering firm. In 1972 she gave birth to a son and got divorced later that year. “As a single mom I did whatever was necessary to pay the rent and feed my son. I worked at a dress shop downtown and sold ivory trinkets on Fourth Avenue.”
When construction started on the oil pipeline in 1974, Johnson got a job at the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) to monitor union recruitment and dispatching of Alaska Natives to construction jobs on the pipeline. While at AFN, Johnson established close relationships with elders and leaders.
Gail Schubert, president and CEO, Bering Straits Native Corporation, remembers that Johnson got to know Alaska’s Native people and their strengths and concerns at a critical juncture—right after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed. “Margy also developed a true respect and appreciation of our cultures. She has been a strong supporter of Alaska Native artists, and her collection of art is a testament to that,” Schubert says.
Her knowledge and fondness for Alaska Native arts and crafts led to a contract with the Smithsonian Institution to accompany a group of Alaska Native artists and dancers to the 1976 Festival of American Folklife in Washington, DC.
Transforming the Market
In 1978, Johnson and her second husband, Dick Borer, moved to Cordova, where they ran the Reluctant Fisherman Inn. “After all those years of growing up in one, there I was in Cordova running another restaurant.”
In Cordova life revolves around salmon fishing, and Johnson soon fell in love with the fresh Copper River salmon and noted that the fish did not get the attention they deserved. “For so many years we had stuck that magnificent fish into a can or shipped it frozen to Japan. Once we got it out of the can we realized how good it was.”
While serving as president of the Cordova Chamber of Commerce, Johnson began working with Alaska Airlines, various fishing groups, and Trident Seafoods to promote fresh salmon. “Margy would place a box of fish under her arm and go up and down the West Coast, trying to convince high-end restaurants and retailers of the fine taste of fresh salmon,” says John Garner, a vice president at Trident Seafoods in Seattle.
Two companies were crucial for those promotions. “Trident provided fish and Alaska Airlines flew me to any place I wanted to go,” Johnson says. “We held many salmon and wine pairings in Lower 48 restaurants. Sometime it was just me and a fish, and I often slept in airports.”
The hard work paid off. It increased the cachet of Copper River sockeye salmon, elevating it to elite status in restaurants across the nation. “Not only did Johnson promote the fish, she also helped arrange the logistics of moving the fish from a remote community, Cordova, by seeking help from Alaska Airlines as well as Lynden Transport and Alaska Marine Lines,” Garner says.
Garner credits Johnson for transforming the market for Copper River fish by helping create domestic demand. “Before Margy came along, we froze our Copper River salmon for export to Japan. Today 100 percent of our king salmon and 90 percent of the sockeye are sold fresh in the domestic market.”
The promotions of Copper River fish also helped increase domestic sales of other Alaska salmon, Garner says. Later, as the director of the Office of International Trade, Johnson travelled to foreign capitals, such as Tokyo and Seoul, working to expand foreign sales.
Alaska Airlines flies a lot of salmon out of the state, including the first catch of Copper River salmon. In 2005, it paid homage to Alaska’s salmon by painting one on a 737-400 airplane and named it “Salmon-30-Salmon.” “That great fish on the plane was just a dream in my heart. I presented the idea to John Kelly, who was Alaska Airlines chairman at the time,” Johnson says.
Figuring Out the Truth
Her love of fish and the fishing industry’s importance to Alaska notwithstanding, Johnson is also aware that the oil industry is vital to the state. “We are essentially a resource state. But I like reasonably paced development. Government should be the gentle breeze on the back of the business and not a stiff wind of opposition. The state and our industries—oil, or timber, mining, or fish—need to be partners.”
She likened the roles of industry and government to her role as a Cordova innkeeper. An innkeeper’s responsibility is to provide guests with clean accommodations at a reasonable price and the guest’s responsibility is to pay the bill and not trash the inn, Johnson says. “Similarly, Alaskans and their government’s job is to provide industry with reasonable expectations and regulations and the industry’s job to pay the bill and not trash the environment.”
Then the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened in 1989. Johnson’s beloved Prince William Sound, through which salmon swam, was despoiled. Within hours, Johnson boarded a friend’s airplane and flew to the spill site. “Oil was seeping out, but with enough boom, it could have been contained,” she says. “I thought the industry would take care of it.”
She also expressed her sadness and put up a sign at the Reluctant Fisherman: “Flags are at half-mast due to the death of our environment.”
She watched with dismay how Exxon and the state and federal governments kept “bumbling the cleanup.” And she saw that the spill was tearing apart her town. “The environmental community had anger in its heart and said the Sound was dead, and the oil industry said the oil was organic and would go away. I realized it was up to us as citizens to figure out the truth,” Johnson says.
That search for truth led Johnson, by then a member of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council (formed after the spill), to Sullom Voe in the Shetland Islands to look at the North Sea oil facilities. “They had oil production there but also a safe environment for many years and we wanted to see what safeguards they had that we lacked.”
Bill Walker, a former mayor of Valdez, also went to Sullom Voe. “During our discussions Margy made sure the discussion stayed focused and everyone had a chance to voice their opinion,” he recalls.
Information gathered from the Shetlands and other places helped bring many changes in the oil industry’s operations in Prince William Sound. “Today we have escort vessels, double-hulled tankers, and depots of equipment around the Sound to dispatch if it occurs again. You simply cannot beat ‘citizen involvement,’” Johnson says.
Phil Cochrane, BP’s vice president for external affairs, sees Johnson at meetings of BP’s advisory board and lauds her honesty. “Even after the oil spill she is still an unabashed champion of our business, but she also lets us know if we are not doing something we should be doing, or could do better.”
Others, including D.H. Cuddy, chairman of First National, also noticed those qualities. “Margy is one of the smartest people I know. She uses those smarts to help our state become a better place for all Alaskans. I’ve learned to value her opinion, which she’s not afraid to share, and trust her judgment. More often than not, she hits the nail right on the head.”
But the spill changed her town. “Our town expanded to meet the demands of the disaster but it was taking a long time to get back together.” Johnson wanted Cordova to become a community again and get back to mundane things such as concern for streets, water, sewer, and schools. So she ran for mayor in 1990.
“It was a hard-won contest and I won by one vote. When my opponent demanded a recount I picked up another vote. So I won by two votes.” Johnson went on to win the next election, and then another after a three-year hiatus.
A corner of the Enchanted Mermaid, Margy Johnson’s house.
© 2013 Chris Arend Photography
Johnson’s Famous Hats
No story about Johnson is complete without mentioning her famous hats. The hats came nine years ago, when she had cancer. She buys hats in vintage shops, and friends bring them for her from their travels. Her hats number “more than twenty, but less than one hundred.”
After she was cured she began working with cancer patients. She often invites them to the Enchanted Mermaid, her house, and gives them the choice to wear one of her hats as they sip high tea and talk about options.
Johnson is modest in her generosity and compassion, but people know. Betsy Lawer, president and vice chair at First National says, “Margy is a people person. She seems to know everybody and everything that’s going on, and cares how it affects Alaskans, for good or ill. It’s invaluable to have this kind of experience, know-how, and compassion on our board.”
Her accomplishments are significant, but Johnson’s acts of individual kindness, many done privately and quietly, set her apart, Walker says.
Johnson is loath to draw attention to herself. Her son Wade Pitts says her way of bragging is to talk about him. “She is the first to jump out of the way when the spotlight shines on her.”
The best example of Johnson’s modesty is her not mentioning that First National nominated her for the 2013 William A. Egan Outstanding Alaskan Award; at the time of this writing she was one of three finalists for the award which was to be presented October 15.
In September, Alice Rogoff, publisher of the Alaska Dispatch, told Johnson she wanted her on the Dispatch team. “I will be doing community affairs,” Johnson says, adding that she is “looking forward to this next great adventure in Alaska.”
As Johnson sees it, the future of Alaska is bright. She believes that the futures of the state and Alaska Native Corporations are one and the same. “I believe Alaska will be led by its original people. They have reclaimed what was originally theirs. Alaska belonged to them and now they are back in full. I love that change, I absolutely embrace it.”
That is how Johnson is—always optimistic, full of grace, and giving accolades while seeking none.
Shehla Anjum writes from Anchorage.