By By Frederick N. Rasmussen and The Baltimore Sun
Mar 20, 2014 | 4:18 PM
Shirley W. Johnson, whose personal tragedy of losing her son to a drunken driver resulted in her becoming a major voice in the Maryland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, died March 9 of complications from a stroke at Glen Meadows retirement community in Glen Arm. She was 91.
"Shirley was a founding mother in Maryland of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She was a highly personable and respected leader," said Keith S. Franz, who has been active in MADD for more than 30 years. "She was kind, persuasive and loved by everyone."
Born Shirley West and raised in Westfield, N.J., she graduated in 1940 from Westfield High School. After graduating in 1944 with a degree in history from Middlebury College, she worked for five years as an Arthur Murray dance instructor in Newark, N.J.
She met her future husband, Leight Johnson Sr., in 1947 when the couple shared a chairlift ride at a ski resort in Stowe, Vt. They married in 1949 and lived in Philadelphia before moving to Baltimore in 1955.
A year later, the couple settled in Parkville, where Mrs. Johnson, a homemaker, raised their five children.
The couple's lives were changed on May 6, 1979, when a drunken driver killed their son, Leight "Johnny" Johnson Jr. The 25-year-old paramedic's Toyota hatchback was struck by a driver traveling in the wrong direction on U.S. 40.
Mrs. Johnson's frustration and rage grew when the woman who had killed her son agreed to a plea bargain and received a suspended sentence.
In 1980, MADD was founded by Candy Lightner, a California woman whose daughter had been killed by a drunken driver. MADD's mission would grow into a nationwide effort that fought for tougher drunken-driving laws.
Cindi Lamb Manns, who lived in Mount Airy and lost her daughter to a drunken driver the next year, established the state chapter of MADD.
It was the very thing that Mrs. Johnson needed to help with her grief and cope with the loss of her son.
"She was with the group from its infancy. I remember sitting around her kitchen table helping with the organization. She became the de facto leader of the group. It was Shirley who ran with the ball," said Mr. Franz, who is a partner in the Towson law firm of Azrael, Franz, Schwab and Lipowitz.
"Many people who went through what Shirley went through would shrink from participating in events, life and a social life. Shirley was the exact opposite," said Mr. Franz. "Through MADD, she wanted to make the world a better place, and she found a great voice in MADD."
Mrs. Johnson, who rose to become the state and Baltimore County president of MADD, established court monitoring of drunken-driving cases and helped with victims' services.
"She helped them cope with their tragedy," said Mr. Franz.
Mrs. Johnson criss-crossed Maryland giving speeches, speaking to high school students about the dangers of drinking and driving. She organized vigils for those who had lost loved ones to a drunken driver.
In Annapolis, she became a familiar figure to legislators as she walked the legislative halls lobbying for tougher laws governing drunken drivers.
She attended trials of drunken drivers and sat with victims' families to support and comfort them.
"I can feel what they feel," she told The Baltimore Sun in a 1989 interview. "I can relate to somebody who's going through the process. … It doesn't matter how it's happened. It all comes down to pain."
"She fought for legislative laws that changed drinking and driving from a youthful indiscretion into the serious crime that it is," said Mr. Franz.
Mrs. Johnson also worked with committees that sought to reduce substance abuse among young people.
A resident of the Glen Arm retirement community since 2006, she enjoyed vacationing at a second home in Middlebury, Vt., and continued to ski until recent years, when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She also enjoyed sailing and sewing.
"But it was MADD that really kept her busy," said her husband.
She was a former member of Towson Presbyterian Church.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. March 29 at Glen Meadows, 11630 Glen Arm Road.
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Johnson is survived by three sons, Peter Johnson of Timonium, Timothy Johnson of Urbana and Christopher Johnson of Shelburne, Vt.; and seven grandchildren. A daughter, Sally Johnson, died in 2010.