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Mary H. Johns, Guilford artist and horticulturist, dies

Mary Johns was an activist who enjoyed art and horticulture, and volunteered as a classroom reader

Mary H. Johns, a botanical artist, member of the Horticultural Society of Maryland and an advocate of reading for young students, died Nov. 12 at Union Memorial Hospital after suffering a heart attack.

The Guilford resident was 74.

The daughter of Cornelius Joseph Jeremiah Horgan, a civil engineer, and Catherine Marie Wheeler Horgan, a Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. bakery worker, Mary Margaret Horgan was born and raised in Providence, R.I.

She graduated from St. Francis Xavier Academy and attended Chatham College in Pittsburgh.

In 1965, she married David Lappe Johns, whom she had met when he was a student at Brown University.

She lived for 33 years in Pittsburgh, where her husband was an executive with Mellon Bank. While there, the couple also owned and operated a dairy farm in Ringgold, Pa.

From 1992 to 1994, Mrs. Johns with other residents of Jefferson County, Pa., fought efforts of a Pittsburgh water company that proposed applying sewage sludge on nearby land as fertilizer.

With the assistance of a law firm, environmental advocates and scientists, they were able to establish county residents' right to sue if their water became contaminated by the sludge.

"She was a champion of causes. She barely topped five feet but she could have been a giant when she undertook a campaign to right an injustice," a daughter, Dana Stewart Johns of Baltimore, wrote in an email profile.

Ms. Johns said that her mother's activism required may trips to Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital, where she gave testimony before the state legislature. Ultimately, the companies involved in the sludge plan withdrew their proposal when the slope of the land proved to be greater than allowed by regulations.

After her husband retired from Mellon Bank, the couple moved to Guilford in 1998 to be closer to their four grandchildren.

Throughout her life, Mrs. Johns maintained an interest in art and horticulture, and an outgrowth of that were the perennial gardens she tended at her homes in both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, her daughter said.

In the 1990s, she pursued a botanical illustration degree at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, and also spent several summers in Maine studying with noted botanical artist Linda Heppes Funk, who works only with live plant specimens.

Mrs. Johns was an active member of the Horticultural Society of Maryland and enjoyed attending its annual garden tours.

An inveterate reader and book collector, she was active in the Guilford Book Group, where she was respected for her "eclectic tastes in books," said club member and leader Cynthia R. Armbruster.

"Mary was an avid reader ... and we read many of [the] books that she suggested. They were always very good," said Ms. Armbruster, a former Guilford resident who now lives in Ruxton.

"She was a lively conversationalist when she led discussions," she said. "She always did quite a bit of research for the books she was discussing. She gave us background on the author as well as commentaries, which was very helpful."

At the time of her death, Mrs. Johns was preparing a history of the club, which was founded in 1993, Mrs. Armbruster said.

Mrs. Johns shared her love of books as a volunteer reader at the Waldorf School of Baltimore, where her grandson had been a student.

"She began reading to the first-graders and then, because I follow them as their teacher, to the second-grade students," said Bonnie Wilner of Mount Washington. "She had read to them several days before she passed.

"It was a blessing for us to have Mary here because she had so much energy and spunk," Ms. Wilner said. "She was very generous with the kids in my class, or anyone in her life, and I don't think we were the only ones."

She said Mrs. Johns attended class plays and presented the students with balloons.

"At the end of the year, she'd give them a book since they were now learning to read," Ms. Wilner said.

When Mrs. Johns died, Ms. Wilner had to inform her students.

"We convened a talking circle, and even though they are little kids, they really got it," she said. "They then made a condolence card for the family."

Mrs. Johns was also a master knitter.

"Mary was here as a knitter for a long time and a perennial student of knitting," said Amy Legg, a partner in Woolworks, a Bare Hills knitting shop and school. "She loved taking classes and learning new techniques."

"She especially enjoyed making knitted toys for grandchildren, and she took them to craft shows," she said. "She would come to Woolworks at least once — and sometime twice — a week for teaching. I respected that about her.

A memorial service for Mrs. Johns will be held at 1 p.m. Dec. 10 at the Waldorf School, 4801 Tamarind Road, Baltimore.

In addition to her husband and daughter, she is survived by a son, David Lewis Johns of Nazareth, Pa.; another daughter, Patricia Johns Scanlon of Babylon, N.Y.; a brother, Cornelius Joseph "Neil" Horgan of Oklahoma City; two sisters, Patricia Ann Horgan "Trish" Feeney of Richland, Wash., and Noreen Catherine Horgan "Bo" Myers of Deery, Pa.; and four grandchildren.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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