Old Lyme woman remembered for contributions to open space, the arts

Old Lyme — Diana Atwood Johnson was remembered Wednesday as a "force" for open space and conservation, a staunch supporter of the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, and a mentor in the community.

Atwood Johnson died Monday at the age of 71 after a battle with myositis, an autoimmune disease. She led the town's Open Space Commission as chairwoman and helped guide the development of the state's latest open space plan.

Atwood Johnson was an advocate for open space on the local, state and national levels, and most, if not all, of the open space in the community has "her signature on it," said Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder.

A native of Rochester, N.Y., and a graduate of Skidmore College, Atwood Johnson ran the Old Lyme Inn for 25 years until 2001 and was named Old Lyme's Citizen of the Year in 2012. She was chair emerita of the Board of Trustees of the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and had served as the board's chairwoman from 1996 to 2003 and from 2010 to 2013, according to the college.

Atwood Johnson had been a mainstay of Lyme Academy, ever since the day founder Elisabeth Gordon Chandler approached her close friend and asked her to get involved, according to Todd Jokl, campus dean at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts.

Atwood Johnson helped see Lyme Academy through its accreditation and was instrumental in the campus expansion. She spearheaded the residential component of the campus, with the 12 townhomes being a "direct result of her vision and leadership," Jokl said.

She was also instrumental, working alongside Stephen Tagliatela, the current chairman of the Board of Trustees, in the merger between Lyme Academy and the University of New Haven in 2014, Jokl said.

Each year, a Diana Atwood Johnson Leadership Award is given and will continue to be given to a student, he said.

"She has contributed both in spirit and financially to the scholarship of our students, and her role in this institution is nothing short of transformational and extraordinary," Jokl said.

In 2014 Lyme Academy held an exhibition of Atwood Johnson's photography of wildlife and birds, including of the swallows in Old Lyme, called Bird's Eye View.

Atwood Johnson was an avid birder and was very involved in the Connecticut Audubon Society's EcoTravel program, said Andy Griswold, the director of the travel program and a good friend of Atwood Johnson's. He said she was a strong supporter of the Audubon Society's mission of environmental education and conservation, and personally, she was very loving, supportive of everyone's interests, and a consistent friend.

"She is a treasure," said Old Lyme Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal.

As the chairwoman of Old Lyme's Open Space Commission, Atwood Johnson was the commission's "driving force" and was particularly interested in protecting the natural habitats of animals and birds, said Peter Cable, who serves on the commission.

"She was just absolutely instrumental in establishing the open space areas that we have today," Cable said.

Atwood Johnson also chaired the state's Natural Heritage, Open Space & Watershed Land Acquisition Review Board for 18 years.

Graham Stevens, office director of constituent affairs and land management for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said that Atwood Johnson was a trailblazer in that she not only advocated for open space, but also placed a conservation easement over land she owned for conservation and scenic protection, at a time before the open space movement gained popularity.

"Not only was she one of the longest-serving, most impactful open space advocates in Connecticut, she also was quite a force, a pleasure to work with" who he said stood up to all for the benefit of open space preservation.

Amy Blaymore Paterson, executive director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council, said that Atwood Johnson was an advocate for open space who listened to the opinions of others and thought about things very seriously.

"She put so much intellect and insight and experience into that review board," Paterson said. "She was a fierce advocate and she did not back down from issues that she felt were important to advancing land conservation in the state."

Paterson said Atwood Johnson was particularly effective in guiding the development of the latest version of the Green Plan, the state's comprehensive open space plan.

The state DEEP's Open Space & Watershed Land Acquisition Grant Program's photo contest was named in Atwood Johnson's honor.

John Johnson, Atwood Johnson's former husband, said he and Atwood Johnson traveled all over the world, but her favorite subject was right in her backyard in Old Lyme, where she would photograph wildlife, particularly birds.

Her love of nature and open space was lifelong, said Johnson. She used to tell the story from her childhood when she and her father, an avid trout fisherman, would go around northern New York state looking for the next trout stream.

Johnson said that she always knew what the right thing was to support, whether it was in politics, fundraising for the Lyme Academy, her photography, or his gallery in New London, where Atwood Johnson's skill in photography made her the leading artist.

"She was sagacious and wise," Johnson said. "There was nobody like her."

Atwood Johnson was also involved in politics and ran unsuccessfully against Mark Diebolt in 2004 in a Republican primary for the state Senate's 20th District seat. Andrea Stillman, a Democrat, defeated Diebolt in the general election.

Mary Stone, who serves on the Old Lyme Open Space Commission, said she and Atwood Johnson were among the founders in 2001 of Voices for Good Government, a local, bipartisan group with the goal of seeking and promoting the most qualified and interested people in town government.

Stone said Atwood Johnson was always helping the town in many ways.

"I think Diana's love for her town was boundless," Stone said.

A memorial service is being planned for the spring.  

k.drelich@theday.com

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