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Barbara ‘BJ’ Johnston: 1932-2018


Barbara Johnston, the first managing editor of HerbalGram, died on September 28, 2018, at the age of 86. She lived a full life that started in the small village of Onekama in northern Michigan. Shortly after moving to Austin, Texas, in 1983, she was hired to serve as the editor of the second issue of what was then Mark Blumenthal and Rob McCaleb’s newly founded newsletter HerbalGram. Johnston continued to edit HerbalGram after the foundation of the American Botanical Council (ABC) in 1988 until her retirement in 2000.

Johnston’s childhood in Onekama was one of resourcefulness and hard work. Educated in a one-room schoolhouse, she made up for a lack of academic rigor by reading and learning independently of the classroom and, through a love and talent for music, earned a partial scholarship to study voice and piano performance at Michigan State University. After college, she married Jerry Johnston, and the couple lived in Chicago, Illinois, through the birth of their first two children. When her husband was offered a job at Boeing in Seattle, Washington, they packed up their small family and moved across the country.

Johnston’s son Michael, who was nine months old at the time, is well-acquainted with this part of his family’s history. “Barbara told the story many times of driving over the Rocky Mountains, at night, with the kids screaming in the back of the car,” he wrote (email to M. Blumenthal, January 25, 2019). The Johnstons stayed in Washington State for decades, and Barbara and Jerry had two more children.

Once her children were in school full-time, Johnston began to work outside the home and tried out a number of jobs before being hired as a sales associate at a fabric store. Johnston, who loved to knit and sew, suggested that the store stock yarn and offered to teach sewing and knitting classes. The idea was a success, and Johnston found her niche as a teacher and crafter. Around this time, she also began selling her own needlepoint designs and worked with the National Needlework Association to organize trade shows throughout the United States.

The Johnstons divorced and she moved to the city of Los Gatos, California, where she made frequent trips to Los Angeles to host the needle arts program “Needlecraft” on KOCE-TV, a public broadcasting network. In 1981, she received a Los Angeles-area Emmy Award for her work on the educational television show. After her brief sojourn in California, she moved to Austin and became involved in the fledgling newsletter that would become the basis for the founding of ABC.

In Johnston’s busy crafts room, she helped create and edit the first issues of HerbalGram, which was an eight- then 12-page newsletter. It then grew to 16, then to 24 pages. For the earliest issues, she laid them out using what is now the old-fashioned cut-and-paste method, where articles, the HerbalGram masthead, and clip-art were literally cut and pasted onto a layout board and then photographed onto a metal plate by the printer.

“BJ literally had her hands all over every issue,” said Blumenthal.

He continued: “She was an amazingly intelligent, energetic, creative, and productive person. I don’t believe I’ve ever known anyone who was so well read — she was truly a voracious reader. She started her own magazine, Doll Makers Journal, and became a nationally known expert in her field.”

Cecelia Thompson, ABC’s finance coordinator, who has worked at the organization since 1988, said: “I will always remember Barbara for her incredible creativity, passion for life, fun-loving nature, and, especially, her quick wit. She brought sunshine to a lot of people’s lives in work and play. Of course, with her love of margaritas, we enjoyed many happy hours together! At ABC, she made sure that HerbalGram had a ‘3R’ rating: respected, revered, and read.”

In preparation for the 50th anniversary of the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, the Texas Memorial Museum at the University of Texas at Austin hired Johnston to do detailed, expert work to restore the degraded lace on one of the iconic costumes worn by actress Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara.

“She was that good, and she was that nationally respected for her mastery of needlework arts,” Blumenthal recalled.

Johnston never stopped learning and was a frequent visitor to the Austin Public Library. Her love of crafting became a philanthropic hobby and she knitted throw blankets and socks to donate to friends, charities, and wounded veterans. Her home became a destination for her many friends from all walks of life to meet, work on their latest projects, and socialize.

“Barbara’s years in Austin were, by her own admission, her best,” wrote Michael Johnston. “She did what she wanted, when she wanted, how she wanted… She even started to say ‘y’all.’”

Barbara Johnston is survived by her brother Ted Guimond and children Linda, Michael, Scott, and Ara. She was predeceased by her brother William Guimond and her parents, Anice and William. A celebration of her life was held on January 26, 2019, at ABC’s headquarters in Austin.

—Hannah Bauman