Schenectady Remembers Karen Johnson, Its First Female Mayor

Jun 11, 2019

The first female mayor of Schenectady died Monday.

Officials are mourning Karen Johnson, who, in 1975, made history when she became the first woman elected to serve on the Schenectady City Council. In 1983, the Democrat became the first woman elected Schenectady mayor, serving until 1991.  In 2001 Johnson was elected to the Schenectady County legislature and was serving as vice chairwoman when she died. She was 77 and had been ill.

Originally from western New York, the Radcliffe graduate moved to the Electric City in 1967 when her husband Lyman was hired by General Electric. They had two sons, Kent and Eric.

Schenectady County Legislature Majority Leader Gary Hughes:   "We lost a friend and true public servant with the passing of legislator. Karen B. Johnson. Mrs. Johnson dedicated her life to the betterment of her community and its citizens. Groundbreaking elections, is the first female city council member and mayor along with her election to the Schenectady County Legislature where she served as vice-chair had a profound effect on the residents of the city of Schenectady, Schenectady County, and show that she loved both so much.  We will miss her vast experience and wisdom on our body and send our deepest condolences to her family."

Mayor Gary McCarthy released a statement which says in part, “Karen was a monumental leader in our community. She was a role model, a champion of the arts and education, and a true public servant whose impact, passion, and kindness continue to radiate through Schenectady each and every day. I am forever grateful to have had Karen as a mentor and as a friend. She will be greatly missed.”

Thearse McCalmon is challenging McCarthy in this month’s Democratic primary: “Being the first woman mayor of Schenectady, I want to thank Karen for breaking down the barriers and paving the way for women like me to do exactly the same thing. I hope to be as much of a positive impact on our city as she has been, and I hope that she rests in power.”

Hughes, who served with Johnson on the county legislature for almost 15 years, offered a few personal observations.   "For Karen, it was never about herself. It was always about the people. She wasn't in politics I think for some of the reasons that people get into politics. She wasn't looking for praise or gratification or any of the accolades. Her gratification came from getting things done for people. She had a wonderful gift, that unique talent I think, for helping people to work together bringing them together and helping them work together and then when something great was accomplished like the addition to the Schenectady County Library, it was never about Karen. It was never her saying 'look at me. Look what I did.' It was always 'look it up and see what we accomplished,' and that's what I remember most about legislator Johnson and what I what I value most about having known her and work with her for so many years."

The Schenectady County library’s main branch at Clinton and Liberty streets was recently renamed for Johnson.

In April, her political rival Frank Duci, Schenectady's longest-serving mayor, died at age 97 in Florida. Duci was mayor until Johnson defeated him, ending 20 years of Republican rule.  He was re-elected in 1991 when Johnson decided not to run.