Noel F. Johnson, 78, community activist, photographer
As a social activist, Noel F. Johnson ranged widely, lending expertise and hands-on assistance to organizations across the nonprofit spectrum.
She served on boards or worked for organizations from public radio to public-access cable TV, from the City Mission Society of Boston to the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts.
Her work could also be distinctly personal. That was the case about two decades ago when she helped Karen Hinds, a participant in the Urban Scholars Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, find a senior prom date at Dorchester High School. Ms. Johnson persuaded three young men to let Hinds interview them.
“It was her version of ‘The Dating Game,’ and it was fun and funny to do that,’’ said Hinds, who had immigrated with her family to the United States from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent and ended up going to the prom with a Harvard student. “One of the guys I didn’t choose went with a friend of mine, who also didn’t have an escort.’’
Ms. Johnson, who as a young woman photographed the likes of Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Janis Joplin, and Billie Holiday, died Sept. 19 in Mount Auburn Hospital of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was 78 and lived in Cambridge.
“Noel was always a fighter, for herself and for other people,’’ said Mary Vanderwicken of Cambridge, Ms. Johnson’s partner of more than 40 years. “She defied any kind of societal convention.’’
They met when Ms. Johnson was in her late 30s, “and as a young, gay black woman, there were all sorts of cubbyholes and ways people could have stopped her, but she was determined no one was going to put her in a box or tell her what she couldn’t do,’’ Vanderwicken said.
At various times, Ms. Johnson served on the boards of the Community Art Center in Cambridge, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, Women’s Supported Housing and Empowerment in Somerville, Institute for Human-Centered Design in Boston, and the Central Square Advisory Committee in Cambridge.
She previously worked for the Provincetown Playhouse, the Inman Square Proposition Theatre, the Planning Department in Bath, Maine, Cambridge cable TV, and Boston radio station WUMB-FM.
Ms. Johnson also helped establish the Black Achievers Program in Boston, which recognized youth and adults of color, and a program that provided job training, shelter, and holistic physical and emotional support to Vietnam War veterans of color.
“Noel became focused on social issues that were really important to her,’’ said Nancy Hurlbut of Cambridge, a retired high school teacher. “She managed to jump the color line and become involved with agencies at the executive level that were helping teenagers or other disenfranchised people.’’
Joan Becker, vice provost of UMass Boston and former director of Urban Scholars, said Ms. Johnson “was deeply committed to providing opportunities for young people and used her extensive network of professionals to enhance’’ the program.
“From bringing in professionals from the publishing industry, to helping Urban Scholars produce a yearbook for her high-school classmates, to identifying mentors for seniors to helping a student find a date for the senior prom, no problem or issue was too big or too small. She made a real and positive difference in the lives of the people she touched.’’
Ms. Johnson was born in Cambridge on Oct. 3, 1932, to Lorna Guild Johnson and Leroy H. Johnson Sr.
After high school she moved to New York City, where her jobs including working as a photographer’s assistant.
She lived in Greenwich Village and encountered writers such as James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, and musicians such as Bob Dylan and John Coltrane.
Returning to New England in the late 1960s, Ms. Johnson lived in Boston, Maine, and Cambridge, where her work and volunteer projects often focused on youth and disenfranchised adults.
Hurlbut, an actor and writer who knew Ms. Johnson for 35 years, said she admired the way she related to anyone.
“She could be a friend to all kinds of people, from a WASP like me to a black woman at the Margaret Fuller House,’’ Hurlbut said. “She was genuine, and she was incredibly courageous and tough-minded as she dealt with ALS.’’
Mim Fern of Newton, another close friend, called Ms. Johnson a charming, outgoing woman with a wild sense of humor.
“I’ve known Noel for 55 years, and she was her own person,’’ Fern said. “She didn’t let people define her. She was a real presence. When she was around, people took notice.’’
Vanderwicken said she will miss Ms. Johnson’s “deep concern and commitment to what was going on around her in the community.’’ She said she’ll also miss her laugh and the way Ms. Johnson loved her deeply.
In addition to Vanderwicken, Ms. Johnson leaves two sisters: Naia Wilson of Mattapan and Lorna “Penny’’ Johnson of Somerville.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Cambridge YWCA.
Hinds, who lives in Waterbury, Conn., said Ms. Johnson “made sure I was exposed to the world of arts and culture. She wanted me to understand how to build relationships, how to be comfortable in any setting, and how to present myself well. She explained the politics of workplaces and governments and literally inundated me with the wisdom she gained from her life.’’
Hinds added that when she launched a training and development business, Ms. Johnson was always ready to offer counsel.
“When I wrote my books, she was there,’’ Hinds said, “and even with my latest book, Noel was advocating for me from her sickbed, making sure she sent copies to local agencies.’’
Laurie D. Willis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.