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Ex-N.M. First Lady Dies; Dee Johnson Fought for Women's and Children's Issues

By Sean Olson
Journal Staff Writers
    Former New Mexico first lady Dee Johnson has died, her family announced Saturday.
    Johnson died peacefully in her sleep at her Taos home, according to a statement issued by her family. She was 54.
    "We are devastated by this sad news," the family statement read. "She was really looking forward to spending Christmas with the family and close friends. We ask that everyone keep us in their prayers."
    Former Gov. Gary Johnson said the death was "very sudden" and a total surprise to friends and family. The cause of death is unknown.
    "She was an outstanding human and cared about everyone she came across," Johnson said in a telephone interview about his ex-wife.
    Dee Johnson helped run the Big J Enterprises, an Albuquerque construction company, with her ex-husband for 20 years until she became the state's first lady in 1995.
    Gary Johnson, a Republican, served two terms in office. The couple's last year in the governor's mansion was in 2002.
    Prior to her death, Dee Johnson had been working for the University of New Mexico as a supervisor and coordinator of the restoration of Hodgin Hall, Gary Johnson said. She split her time between homes in Albuquerque and Taos.
    Johnson has two children, Seah and Erik, from her marriage with Gary Johnson.
    The Johnsons separated in May 2005 and later divorced.
    Former state Republican Party Chair and gubernatorial candidate John Dendahl said he was "very surprised" and "very shocked" to hear the news of Johnson's passing.
    Dendahl, who had known the Johnsons since running against Gary Johnson in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1994, said he had seen the former first lady at a Christmas party two weeks ago.
    "She seemed fine, very vivacious as she usually was," Dendahl said.
    Gov. Bill Richardson in a statement said, "Dee Johnson was an outstanding First Lady and a wonderful person.
    "Barbara and I will miss her."
    Richardson ordered flags to be flown at half-staff through Tuesday in honor of Johnson.
    Gary Johnson said his former wife had been a champion of women's and children's issues, such as breast cancer and safety while living in the Governor's mansion.
    "People couldn't have gotten a better number one volunteer, because that's what she was," Gary Johnson said of her time as first lady.
    "Whatever (the issue) was, she had a caring approach," he said.
    Johnson also led the charge to ban smoking in the state Capitol, a long battle she eventually won in 2002.
    But Johnson avoided the public spotlight for most of her reign as first lady, saying in 1995 that she preferred solitude and anonymity to public appearances.
    Johnson grew up in Albuquerque as one of four children to dentist David Simms and his wife Betty Lou.
    She graduated from UNM with a degree in elementary and special education, but continued to work for the remodeling business that grew into Big J Enterprises.
    Johnson had been very active in her children's school lives, including being a PTA member and classroom volunteer.
    Funeral arrangements will be announced in the next few days, Johnson's family said.
    Journal staff writer Lloyd Jojola contributed to this report.

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