Remembering Mildred Johnson, Class of 1939

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News Article

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School of Law


Mildred L. Johnson, a trailblazing North Dakota attorney who became the first woman appointed to the North Dakota Board of Higher Education, died Friday at the age of 96.

She was the only woman to graduate from her class at the University of North Dakota Law School in 1939, and went on to prominent roles in law and education.

She was also a confidant for women at a time when authority figures – lawyers, doctors and clergy – were almost exclusively men, her son, Russell Johnson, said from New York City.

She was a "woman that other women could talk to confidentially," Johnson said Wednesday. "My mom was very helpful in that regard."

In a story for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in January, the 95-year-old attorney described how she was often acutely aware that she was treading into male-dominated territories.

When North Dakota Gov. Clarence Brunsdale called her to appoint her to the Board of Higher Education, she agreed but became worried when she then found out she was pregnant.

"What to do?" she recalled. "It was a difficult decision. Then I figured, what the heck, the guys on the board wouldn't know the difference for about five months." As it turned out, "the guys didn't even care," she said.

While on the board, she voted in sometimes unpopular ways. During the McCarthy era, she defended faculty members accused of being communist, her son said.

"She was the lone vote on the board to support that," he said. "She did what she thought was right. ... That took some courage."

"I always tried to promote discussion, but I wasn't always popular," Mildred Johnson said in January. "One editorial in The Forum spoke against my appointment for a second time. I was called a Communist. Can you believe it? I'm a good North Dakota Lutheran Republican. But I got lots of good support and the appointment."

After her second term ended in 1966, she continued to practice law and took on pro-bono cases to help victims of domestic abuse.

In 1971, the library at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton was named after her in recognition of her work while on the board to purchase more land so the campus could expand.

She had a long marriage to Vernon Johnson, a two-time speaker of the North Dakota House who died in 1996.

She met Vernon Johnson, also a UND law school grad, while working a case in Red Lake Falls, Minn. They were married in September 1940.

Mildred Johnson was a lawyer for 48 years with the Wahpeton law firm Johnson, Johnson, Stokes, Sandberg & Kragness.

She had recently left Prairie View Assisted Living in Perham to move back home and live on her own in Perham, her son said.

"I talked to her the last day that she was alive and she was sharp as a tack; she always was," Russell Johnson said.

She never lost her flair for the law, either. Seventy years after she passed her bar exam, her granddaughter became a public defender in New York City, which gave them a lot to talk about.

"They'd get engrossed in all the cases," he said.

There will be a service at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Bethel Lutheran Church in Wahpeton.