Karen Johnson Remembered By Schenectady County Public Library

Sep 9, 2019

Members of the Schenectady County Public Library Board of Trustees and the County Legislature have dedicated the library’s main branch in honor of a longtime local leader. 

The new sign at the Clinton Street branch reads “[The] Honorable Karen B. Johnson Schenectady County Public Library.” Johnson, who died in June at 77 after a long illness, was the first woman elected to the Schenectady City Council in 1975, and became the city’s first female mayor in 1983. Anthony Jasenski, chair of the Schenectady County Legislature, says the decision to re-name the library was an easy one.

“We smiled, knowing full well that this location, adjacent to City Hall, in full sight of City Hall, would allow her to always keep a watchful eye on how we govern in many years to come," he says. 

Johnson, a Democrat, served two terms as mayor before declining to seek re-election in 1991. As mayor, Johnson is credited with keeping Schenectady’s hopes up as the city struggled with the downsizing of General Electric, and Johnson’s colleagues remember her as someone who never stopped working. Outside politics, Johnson was an organizer of the Kids Art Festival and the city’s Jazz on Jay concert series. She was Proctors’ manager of planned giving for 24 years, and a longtime board member of MVP Health Care. Jasenski, a Democrat, says Johnson was elected to the County Legislature in 2001.

A new plaque details Johnson's work by the library's main entrance.
Credit Jesse King / WAMC

“From the moment I was elected to office to the County Legislature, Karen Johnson was there, so I never remember a time without her," says Jasenski. "She was always willing to lend an ear, mentor, guide new legislators. She was acutely aware of the important role government plays in the lives of people.” 

Johnson served as chair of the County Legislature’s Education Committee, and eventually became Vice-Chair of the Legislature in 2011. Schenectady County Public Library Board of Trustees Chair Carmel Patrick says literacy was Johnson’s passion. She was an active member and president of the Friends of the Library. As a legislator, Patrick says Johnson was key to the expansion of the library’s main branch, and the construction of its Phyllis Bornt Branch in Hamilton Hill and Mont Pleasant Branch on Crane Street.

“[Literacy] opens doors so that our creativity, our empathy for others, and our capacity for learning continues to expand throughout our lives," Patrick explains. "She knew that all of these values are the cornerstone of a healthy, thriving, sustainable community.”

The library’s dedication is not the only accolade for Johnson. Earlier this month, friends, family, and coworkers celebrated her life with a memorial service at Proctors. In August 2018, Johnson was made a Patroon, Schenectady’s highest honor for civic duty. But Jasenski says Johnson wasn’t one for the spotlight, preferring to recognize the work of her colleagues. He was pleasantly surprised when Johnson attended the March Legislature meeting approving the library’s dedication – an accolade that Johnson’s son, Kent, says stood out.

“When I learned about this honor, I first thought, ‘Oh my gosh she’s gonna be mad, she doesn't usually like this sort of thing,'" he notes. "And what I want to do, I want to thank the County Legislature, I want to thank you for this honor. I want to tell you, she was really touched. It meant a great deal to her, and she knew about it well before her death, and it really meant a lot to her.”

In addition to the new sign, library and county officials unveiled a plaque outside the main entrance detailing Johnson’s work. MVP Health Care donated $2,000 in Johnson’s memory to the library’s STARS program - bringing books to young readers.