By Ashley Mackin
• Mary Johnson named “San Diego Woman of the Year” by Irish Congress of Southern CaliforniaWhen the Irish Congress of Southern California sought to choose a San Diego Woman of the Year to ride in a float during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, they determined there could be no better choice than Mary Johnson of La Jolla.
Since the parade theme is “Celebrating People and Public Service,” the committee reached out to organizations like the Salvation Army to find the volunteer who does the most for others in San Diego. They found Johnson.
“The Salvation Army was at the top of our list of organizations that match the theme because they do a lot of hands-on work to help a lot of people,” said Irish Congress member and Irish Man of the Year Scott Dodge. “Mary’s name popped up as someone who has put in a lot of time for a lot of different causes. When you read her resume, you get tired. She just doesn’t quit. She was a perfect fit for this honor.”
Through the Salvation Army, Johnson has volunteered with the following programs: The Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) advisory board, a sobriety program that has over 100 participants at a time and is funded by proceeds from retail sales at Salvation Army stores; The Haven program, for pregnant teens and teenage mothers to infants; Transitional Living Center, for women who have been homeless and are transitioning into new housing with up to two children ages 12 and under; the Kroc Center advisory board; and a transitional program for women that have been trafficked.
When contacted by
La Jolla Lightfor her thoughts on the recognition she shared her motivation. “When I retired, I decided to start volunteering and I realized the more I do for someone else, the better I feel,” Johnson said. “When we help others that takes the focus off ourselves and we realize how much we have to be grateful for. And when you do something for someone else and you get to see their joy, it’s the best thing in the world. It’s contagious.”
In addition to her efforts with the Salvation Army, Johnson tutors children once a week through a program called Uplift.
“These children come in not speaking English or coming out of a refugee camp or just have no form of schooling. Suddenly, they’re placed in second or third grade and are trying to catch up on homework without the basics of reading or math,” she said. “Just that hour of tutoring a week gives them a little extra boost.”
Last year, two Uplift students were accepted to The Preuss School at UCSD. Further, Johnson has volunteered at a soup kitchen downtown that feeds 75-130 homeless people every week for the last seven years. Further still, she uses the time at the soup kitchen to connect teenagers from the McAlister Institute (a drug and alcohol treatment center) and a group of parolees from the Lighthouse (a treatment community), many of whom have alcohol or drug issues in their pasts.
“They haven’t had experience with giving back, so they help serve soup,” she said. “And after the room is cleaned up, the parolees talk to the kids about what they don’t want to do. They say, ‘Don’t do what we did,’ explaining why they would want to stay sober and stay in school.
“It’s funny, I used to be president of the La Jolla Debutante Ball committee and I loved that too ... but now I am doing hands-on work with kids that have lived lives that are unimaginable to me — to most people in La Jolla.
“Really, no matter what your background is — whether you are wealthy and from La Jolla or poor from the inner city and in a gang — people are the same everywhere, and people take different paths to what think will make them happy.
“I know people who seem to have everything and who really aren’t that happy. They are always jockeying for status — saying I wrote this or I have a bigger house — because that is their idea of being happy. But there is always somebody out there who has more money than you or is better at something than you are. I see people who want more more more more, but that is not the answer.”
In her career as a director of contracts and marketing, Johnson said she was once one of them, competing for money and success. She was the youngest – and only female – director at a corporation, which she was sure, would make her happy.
“I didn’t like some aspects of myself, I was so hard-edged. I had feelings, but I kept them in,” she recalled. “When I started volunteering, the anger and cynicism I’d developed fell away and now I live in a place of joy.”
Johnson is the wife of artist George Johnson. They have a daughter and refer to many of the young people in their live as their “kids.”
• Scott Dodge named named “Irish Man of the Year” by Irish Congress of Southern California
They will accompany the Irish Congress’ “San Diego Man of the Year” James Collins of Ramona, and “San Diego Woman of the Year” Mary Johnson of La Jolla, who will also be recognized during the parade. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer will serve as Executive Grand Marshall.
Dodge is a 17-year member of the Irish Congress. He said the “Irish Man of the Year” is often affiliated with the organization in some way. In his case, he’s been behind the scenes working on the parade and keeping Irish traditions relevant in his family.
His wife, Suzanne, has been the treasurer of the Irish Congress for 10 years. “It takes so much time (to put on the parade) that she didn’t get to see me unless she was helping,” he joked. “So she took on the treasurer’s job and hasn’t been able to let it go since.”
The couple’s daughter, Sherry, was San Diego’s “Miss Colleen” in 1999. The pageant strives to cultivate Irish pride in young women, and the winner represents the Congress on a trip to the Emerald Isle.
And it’s not just within his own family that Dodge tries to keep Irish traditions alive. Through the festival, he works to bring in younger generations, so they, too, might celebrate their rich heritage.
“Many older people feel that a lot of the history and culture has been lost over time, so we try to get kids to participate in the festival and get a feel for it,” he said. “And it’s grown over the years; we went from people walking down the street to 20,000-30,000 people coming downtown. It’s one of the largest one-day events in San Diego.”
Dodge said the festival features a Celtic Village reflecting Ireland in the 1600s, with food and people dressed in the garb of the period. There are also booths with information about different historical periods and traditional Irish dancing. There is also a kids’ zone, beer garden and some 50 vendors selling Irish crafts.
In addition to his contributions to the parade and festival, Dodge is being recognized for his service work in the community at large. He is president of the Wilcox Foundation, which distributes grants that help at-risk youth and senior citizens, and he helped establish the Pro-Kids Golf Club at Colima Park in the City Heights neighborhood, through which at-risk youth learn to play golf and adopt the lessons learned to life lessons.
“In golf, if you accidentally kick your ball, you give yourself a penalty. Hopefully, through that, kids learn professionalism and honesty,” Dodge said.
The recently retired attorney previously served on dozens of boards, including the American Lung Association, Easter Seals Society and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. He is also a longtime usher at the La Jolla Presbyterian Church.
If you go■ What: St. Patrick’s Day Parade & Festival
■ When: Festival opens at 9 a.m. Parade starts at 10:30 a.m. SATURDAY, March 15
■ Where: Sixth Avenue and Juniper Street, north on Fifth Avenue to Upas Street, south on Sixth Avenue, ends at Juniper Street.
■ Highlight: A New York City Fire Department Aerial Ladder Truck that assisted during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (and which carries pieces of the World Trade Center and of one of the planes that struck it) will be on display.