Remembering ‘A Very Special Person’

Mary Wig Johnson ’35 died at her home in Laguna Beach, of complications from lung cancer, surrounded by family. She was 89.

A celebration of Mary’s life was held for family and friends on March 28 in Laguna Beach. On April 24, the Scripps community gathered in Margaret Fowler Garden for a memorial service.

While no building, court, or residence hall bears her name, the spirit of Mary Wig Johnson pervades the Scripps campus. Mary Johnson committed much of her time and financial support to ensure that the college she loved would grow and flourish as an institution of the highest standards in teaching and learning. Arguably, she was one of the most influential women in Scripps’ history.

Her involvement and her gifts were strategic. She kept Scripps’ best interests foremost in her actions and decisions as a trustee, benefactor, and alumna. Thus, her name is associated with key programs, scholarships, and areas of critical importance to the ongoing excellence of the College. A plain-spoken woman who perfected an understated persona, she was a dominant force in any setting due to her clarity of mind and purpose and her ever-present grace. When Mary Wig Johnson spoke, presidents listened. And, if they were astute, they usually did what she advised.

Every college should have a Mary Wig Johnson. Only Scripps was that fortunate.

We celebrate Mary Wig Johnson with stories of her life from the people who knew her and loved her best.

Nancy Y. Bekavac

Mary Bartlett Wig entered Scripps College in September 1931, in her seventeenth year and the College’s fifth year. She graduated with her class in 1935, but in a real sense, she never left Scripps. She became president of the Alumnae Association in 1940, and a member of the Board of Trustees in 1958. She served continuously until, and after, she ascended to emerita status in 1989. The bare recital of these facts doesn’t begin to tell the story of what Mary meant to Scripps College.

In 1999, as part of the strategic plan, the College proposed to adopt the following goal: “Scripps College will be a women’s college that offers the best liberal arts education in America.” The plan was presented to the trustees and there was some discussion. The goal was audacious, certainly: Scripps is a very small women’s college, only 76 years old, and it had never said anything like this. Among the trustees are graduates of colleges and universities that already lay claim to offering the best education in America. After a few minutes of discussion raising concerns whether the College should state the goal, Mary spoke up and said: “It seems to me that this is exactly the right goal. That is what I always thought Scripps was, and there is no reason not to say so now.” After she spoke, there was silence, and the vote in favor was unanimous.

I want to credit Mary’s selflessness. She was not concerned about credit for all she did – quite the opposite. She cared really for the gift, for what it could and would do, for the difference it could make in students’ and faculty members’ lives. I remember about six or seven years ago attending a dinner with the senior class. They had invited Mary to speak with them about why she gave to the College as a kickoff to their own senior gift drive. Mary spoke so simply and so clearly about her sense of giving back and of her excitement at what the College could do for women that I thought then how much that speech would mean to those women throughout their lives. Many of those young women knew who she was and what she had done for them – they had served on the Student Investment Fund or had had Johnson summer research grants or been Humanities Institute Fellows.

Mary was a gracious woman who was born into a family of hard work, learning, and culture. She adopted her father’s ethic of dedication to education and generosity, adding her own warmth and style. How very lucky, for all of us at Scripps College, that we had the opportunity to experience her good fellowship in our lives.

Robert Johnson, son

On an occasion like this, most every son describes his mother as having been a very special person. I always knew this was true of my mom, but the truth of the matter was brought to me perhaps most vividly when I stopped by her house on one of my routine visits, three-and-a-half years ago, the night after she was diagnosed with the cancer that ultimately claimed her.

I had hardly set foot inside the door when she said:

“I’ve outlived my mother, my father, my husband, my eldest – and everyone who has been listed in the obituary pages over the last three days. I’ve had a wonderful life, and I have a lot to be grateful for.”

She was organized – even now her records will show that, during the first full year of her marriage, during the depths of the Great Depression in 1936, she and my father budgeted $30 a month for food. This was for both of them—including five cents a day for my father’s lunch milk at his coal soot-choked job at Taylor Pipe and Forge in Chicago. Her records say that, when they checked how they had done at the end of the year, it turned out that they had actually spent an average of $29.60 per month! They were so thrifty they lived for two years in Chicago and never turned on the heat—instead, relying on warmth coming through the walls from neighboring apartments.

Don Johnson, son

Her experiences in the Depression clearly molded her, but her reactions also reflected more ingrained traits

An example of her frugality occured last October, when she drove for one of the last times. She was having trouble walking due to shortness of breath and getting in and out of a car was difficult. Yet she insisted on driving herself out each week to get her hair done. That evening when I stopped by the house she was very apologetic – even contrite. She admitted that when she bought gas that day, she had gone to a full-service gas pump and paid the premium price – probably for the first time. I told her it was OK.

She was always more interested in promoting the interests of the organizations she served, than in seeking recognition for herself. On one occasion when she was contemplating a significant gift to an institution, I asked if she would want to have a building there named in her honor. She smiled and said that it is much easier for institutions to attract donations that can be recognized with building names than to obtain funds for other needs. She said she wanted to fund strategic needs which other people were less likely to accommodate.

Steve Koblik, president of The Huntington Library and former provost at Scripps.

I first met Mary in 1989 when I joined the staff of her beloved Scripps College.

In our first encounters, the issues were always about moving the College forward.

She wanted the details, whether it was about the programs in the Humanities Institute, the Student Investment Fund, or an accounting of her gifts and their uses. Her questions in the Educational Policy Committee, or on the floor of the board meetings, were always straight and important. You could almost unravel how well we were doing by looking back on the questions Mary asked. In a sense, Mary’s questions, not our answers, were leading us in the right direction.

Mary Wig Johnson lived a purposeful, loving, and full life. When I think of Mary, I want to smile. There is a goodness of feeling of having been present to witness a life where that individual has accomplished so many remarkable things and in a style which is distinctively her own.

We will not forget Mary because her gifts of life and of purpose will always be with us.

Jonathan Brown, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities


(from a March 2003 AICCU newsletter)

 

One of Mary’s small contributions to Scripps deserves special review. About 20 years ago, she decided that Scripps graduates needed some good experience as financial managers, so she set up a small fund called the Student Investment Fund. The grant had only two rules. First, the entire operation had to be run by students. Second, the fund had to spend 6% annually, a bit higher than most endowment payouts. The fund is currently worth about eight times its original basis, but still small by most endowment sizes. But Mary understood the power of well-placed assets.

The recent Scripps board retreat showed the power of her ideas. The board hosts a number of prominent women in financial careers, who are there in part because the Student Investment Fund gave them a chance to understand the skills of money management. The current students have those careers in their vision in part because the Student Investment Fund gave them a chance to understand the skills of money management.

Mary made a continuous contribution to the Claremont community. She made a similar one to the greater Southern California community. Both communities will miss her. But both will continue in the example of the Scripps students who were encouraged to think about the world differently because of one small gift and the understanding from one benefactor that energy and encouragement can move mountains.