Former Jefferson County leader dies: Johnson remembered as politician, environmentalist, poet

Phil Johnson

Phil Johnson

PORT TOWNSEND — Former Jefferson County commission chairman Phil Johnson died Tuesday morning of complications of Parkinson’s Disease.

He was 72.

Johnson, a native of Port Townsend, served three terms on the Jefferson County commission.

At Monday’s county commissioners’ meeting, John Austin, former county commissioner and Johnson’s colleague who served eight years with him, spoke of him with fondness.

“This weekend I visited Phil Johnson and he won’t be with us for many more hours,”Austin said, as he offered a tribute to this “remarkable man.”

Johnson was a graduate of Port Townsend High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington. He worked as a commercial fisherman, then a builder who constructed new homes and restored old buildings in town.

He won his first county commissioner term in 2004, beating incumbent Dan Titterness, and was twice re-elected.

A longtime champion of the environment, Johnson was a key figure in fighting net pens in the county.

He chose not to seek re-election two years ago because of his health, and his seat was won by current commissioner and chair Kate Dean.

“He was raised on a small farm immediately north of the county fairgrounds,” Austin recalled. “Before he became a county commissioner, he served in the U.S. Army. He wasn’t particularly happy to be there, but he did what he had to do.

“He then threw himself into his life as a fisherman without doing much research on it before, knowing he would love the adventure and enjoy the outdoors,” Austin continued.

“He loved fish, particularly salmon, and spent much of the rest of his life dedicated to preserving the environment so he could continue to have his salmon.”

During recent visits, Johnson would read his poetry to Austin. It was reminiscent of the work of Robinson Jeffers, Austin said.

“It’s excellent, evocative poetry that tells me of this young man and his observations of the world and the county that he loves,” he said.

Rocky Friedman, owner of the Rose Theatre, said Johnson helped restore the Rose and facilitated its opening in 1992.

“The Rose Theater restoration would have never happened without Phil and Sandy Johnson,” Friedman said.

“I had been working for five years to open a movie theater in this town. The first person I approached was Phil, who owned a building around the corner on Washington Street. The space was above the Upstage Theater but it was too small and wouldn’t work for my purposes.

“He called later and said the old Rose was for sale and asked if I was still trying to open my theater.

“I finally found my angel,” Friedman said. “Phil went out on a limb and bought the building for someone he didn’t know. He took a big leap of faith. He jumped off the ledge with me because he believed in it.”

“That was the beginning of it. The most important thing is we weren’t just business associates. We became friends. They are wonderful people, Phil and Sandy, with great hearts. Very community-minded. He’s just a sweet person. I will miss him.”

County Commissioner David Sullivan was first elected at the same time as Johnson.

“This is an emotional time for me,” Sullivan said. “He was brother commissioner.”

“Phil was one of the most honorable and compassionate people I’ve had the pleasure to know. To serve with him for 12 years was really a gift.

“We were able to make such a difference,” Sullivan continued. “I felt we always had each other’s backs. We were in tune. We knew each other’s values and could speak with confidence.”

Sullivan said Johnson took the lead on environmental issues and cared about the past and about historical preservation as well as the future.

“He brought a depth and breadth to everything he cared about,” Sullivan said. “His compassion, the detail he had. He was an English major and brought that language to what we did. He saw the beauty in everything.”

Sullivan said Johnson enjoyed working and took pleasure in hard work.

“Phil loved the complications of things and he kept looking at things differently. It didn’t daunt him at all.”

Sullivan said some of the projects still unfinished that Johnson led include the Port Hadlock sewer and the vision of a walkable, bikable Port Hadlock community with a restored stream running through it.

He also said Johnson had planned to ride a completed Discovery Trail from Port Townsend to the coast.

“That’s Phil unfinished,” he said.

“It’s something special when you are running together, then you are a team, taking something on together,” Sullivan said. “We had to win over people and make things work.

“I can’t imagine how it would have been without Phil.”

Johnson is survived by his wife, Sandy, and daughter, Maia, who lives in New York City and works for Bloomberg Philanthropy. Details of a memorial have not been released.

Last year, the Jefferson County Democrats established the Phil Johnson Environmental Scholarship Fund to honor Johnson’s advocacy of natural resources.

Managed by the Jefferson Community Foundation, the fund will award up to $2,000 scholarships annually to residents of the city who are graduating from high school or are in college majoring or minoring in environmental sciences, ecology or an allied field such as marine sciences or biology.

For more information contact the foundation at


Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected]

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