Toby Johnson, a rancher and educator whose folksy manner, common-sense values and connection to people from all walks of life propelled him to four terms on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, died Monday at 97.
Before entering public office, Johnson spent almost three decades as a teacher, principal and superintendent in Sacramento County schools. He served as an administrator in small, rural districts, working directly with teachers and custodians, managing public budgets and getting to know families trying to make ends meet.
The hands-on approach gave him a deep understanding of local voters and issues when he decided to run for supervisor in 1978. He ran in District 5, a vast territory that then covered two-thirds of Sacramento County, from Folsom Lake to the Sacramento River Delta.
At 61, he won with a grass-roots campaign managed by his wife that included hand-painted signs, little spending and thousands of miles driving to community forums and walking precincts in the sparsely populated district.
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“Teaching was about serving people, and he saw that he could do that in a bigger way,” said his wife, Sue. “We never had a fundraiser that was over $25. He was not political, but he just did a great job and was so well respected by everyone.”
Johnson served a total of 16 years as a Sacramento County supervisor. During that time, his sprawling district underwent rapid growth, including the dramatic transformation of Elk Grove and Laguna from pastures to booming suburbs. Mather Air Force Base closed, Apple opened a distribution center and three highway interchanges were built.
Dedicated to staying in touch with voters, Johnson attended countless meetings, banquets, town hall events, barbecues, awards ceremonies and festivals. He organized planning advisory groups and sat for hours with other supervisors at lengthy public hearings as developers unveiled plans for new subdivisions and residents expressed concerns about the impact of growth on their quality of life.
Johnson, who had operated and lived on a Franklin area cattle ranch since 1949, opposed unchecked development in rural areas. He expressed concern about allowing urban sprawl before anyone figured out how to pay for roads, sewers, fire stations, libraries, schools and other public services that a new community would need.
“Toby took a strong stand on land-use issues,” said Supervisor Don Nottoli, who was Johnson’s aide during his entire term on the board before succeeding him in 1994. “He fought very hard for what he believed in, even though he was often on the short end of the vote. But he never harbored resentment or bad feelings.”
Former Supervisor Illa Collin recalled heated public arguments with Johnson over efforts by unincorporated areas to form new cities when the pair served on the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission. He generally supported cityhood efforts, which Collin warned would divert tax revenue for countywide services.
“I could make him so mad, his face would turn red,” Collin said. “After the meeting, he would come up to me and say, ‘Shall we go to Marie Callender’s and have some pie?’ People couldn’t believe that we could leave together and have pie. We had so much fun together.”
Despite losing development battles in south Sacramento County, Johnson remained immensely popular among voters, winning re-election races by bigger and bigger margins. Modest and self-effacing in public, he was a warm, funny man with sly grin, twinkling eyes and compassion for others. Between board meetings, he made time to visit ill people in hospitals, attend public events in his district and “help change a tire if he saw somebody with a flat on the road,” Nottoli said.
Johnson was widely respected as a politician who followed his own sense of what was right rather than ideology. In 1994, facing a divisive proposal to give clean needles to drug addicts in an effort to stop the spread of HIV, he planned to vote no out of concern that it would encourage drug use. But after hearing moving testimony from health experts and AIDS patients who said more people would die without the program, Johnson changed his mind and provided a swing vote to approve the plan.
“You always have to keep an open mind about what will happen if you don’t take an action,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 1995, before a Superior Court judge invalidated the needle program.
Born June 5, 1917, in San Francisco, Charles Martin Johnson was the only child of a military doctor who nicknamed him “Toby,” which stuck for life. After his father, Walter Johnson, died in the flu pandemic in 1918, he moved with his mother, Evelyn, to Sacramento and graduated from Sacramento High School in 1934. He attended Sacramento City College and UC Berkeley and had a son and daughter with his first wife, Pauline.
After serving in the Marine Corps during World War II, he earned a teaching credential at Sacramento State and began working in 1950 as a teacher at Franklin School, near his ranch. His career included positions as a teacher, principal, personnel director and superintendent at local districts, including Arden-Carmichael, San Juan, Galt and Arcohe. The Elk Grove Unified School District named a new middle school in his honor in 2002.
Friends said Johnson’s sensitivity to people in need was influenced by personal tragedies. In addition to the early death of his father, he was rocked when his son Tobyinexplicably went into a coma and died at 18 after being vaccinated while preparing to ship out with the Marines.
Johnson’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1967, he married Sue Clemens, adopted her son and had two more sons.
On his retirement from the Board of Supervisors in 1994, Johnson was praised by The Bee as an unconventional politician in an era of special-interest money who worked hard and wielded political power “based on old-fashioned virtues, strength of character and integrity.”
“I am just a run-of-the-mill person as far as my view is about dealing with the problems of daily living,” he told The Bee after winning his first election in 1978. “I kind of feel the most important thing in life is the people you meet and deal with. That is more important than becoming wealthy or internationally famous.
“I got a lot of satisfaction out of” winning the election, he said. “It just goes to prove that if you walk many miles, you will find something at the end of that walk.”
In addition to his wife, Johnson is survived by his daughter, Sue Kuhn; three sons, Jeff, Thad and Matt; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Dec. 5 at First Baptist Church of Elk Grove, 8939 East Stockton Blvd., Elk Grove. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to any charity.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916)321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.