Joan B. Johnson, who served 16 years as Islip Town clerk, the first African American official in town history, and ran as Suffolk Republicans’ first black congressional candidate, has died. She was 85.
Johnson died at her Great River home Saturday surrounded by family after suffering declining health for the past several years.
Johnson served as town clerk from 1991 to 2007, winning re-election three times with more than 65 percent of the vote. She also ran an uphill and ultimately losing bid for Congress in 2000 against Democratic Rep. Steve Israel. Johnson also served as executive director and as board chairwoman of Suffolk’s Head Start program, and as Islip deputy commissioner of human services.
She and her husband of 62 years, Cleveland Johnson Jr., a former deputy Suffolk County executive who later was appointed to several state and federal posts, were the most prominent minority figures in Suffolk GOP ranks.
“She is one of the most dynamic and impressive public servants that has ever graced Suffolk County and the Islip landscape,” said Jesse Garcia, Suffolk Republican chairman. “She was our candidate for Congress in 2000 and she demonstrated through her hard work that Republicans are also about diversity, before it became a political tool,” for Democrats.
“When I think of Joan, it was always as a role model,” said Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter, a Republican. “Over the years, she mentored so many. She was always willing to help anyone move up and go forward.”
Carpenter also said Johnson took seriously her role as town clerk, which included issuing marriage licenses and officiating at weddings. “When my son and his fiancée wanted to be married on the beach,” Carpenter said, “Joan schlepped down to Robert Moses [State Park] one Sunday morning and was happy to do it.”
“She touched so many people and changed the trajectory of more lives than anyone else I’ve ever known,” said daughter Kelly Schaeffer of Yaphank. “But my mother’s best piece of advice was that happiness is a choice and that choice is no one’s responsibility but your own. … She always told us, ‘Never wait for anyone else to buy you flowers.’”
Friends recalled Johnson singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for years at various Republican conventions and fundraisers. She also won the title of Ms. Senior America for New York State in 1995, singing “My Funny Valentine” in the talent competition. She went on to become first runner-up in the national competition held in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Born in West Palm Beach, Florida, one of eight children, Johnson, whose maiden name was Joan Blondell Maloney, attended Florida A & M University in Tallahassee,, and moved to New York City in hopes of becoming a professional singer. She also worked for New York Telephone Co.
Johnson met her husband in 1956, when he returned from college while she was living with relatives in the Bronx in an apartment building owned by his father. The couple married a year later, on the day he finished Army basic training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
After her husband got out of the service, the couple moved to Central Islip in 1962. Initially, Johnson was a stay-at-home mom, but went to work in 1967 as a community liaison for Islip Town. She graduated from the SUNY Old Westbury and received a master’s degree in social welfare from Stony Brook University in 1977. Johnson also served as a school board member in the Central Islip School District, and worked as an adjunct professor at New York institute of Technology.
In addition to her husband and daughter, survivors include sisters, June Christine Brown of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Joann Peoples of Philadelphia; brothers, Rodriquez Maloney of Denver, Christopher Maloney Jr. of Fayetteville, Georgia, and Alfred Maloney of Middletown, Delaware; sons, Keith of Queens and Cleveland of South Setauket; daughter Genevieve of Chicago; and 11 grandchildren.
A wake will be held at Frederick J. Chapey & Sons Funeral Home in East Islip Wednesday and Thursday, 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. There will be a memorial service at 10 a.m. Friday at the funeral home. A private burial will follow at Pinelawn Memorial Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Joan Johnson’s name to Long Island Head Start.