By Marlena Chavira-Medford
Solana Beach resident Diane Johnson grew up in Cannon Falls, a sleepy Minnesota town. While it was a happy life, Johnson said she felt a draw to explore the world — a journey that began when she traveled through Europe as a student at the University of Minnesota. That set the foundation for her globetrotting, which has taken her to Cuba, Vietnam, Egypt, Morocco, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, the Galapagos, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Russia, just to name a few.
While attending law school at the University of Minnesota, she administered the university’s Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research, which gave her experience with the world of medical devices. After graduating from law school, she joined St. Jude Medical, Inc., a manufacturer of cardiac devices that was headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota. Not only was she the company’s first in-house legal advisor, but she was also the first woman in senior management. When she retired from the company in 1997, she was vice president and general counsel.
“I decided that when I retired, I wanted to live somewhere where I could walk outside any day of the year without putting on a winter jacket and boots,” Johnson said.
That decision eventually brought her to the warm shores of Solana Beach. Johnson decided to dedicate her retirement years entirely to volunteering for worthy causes. Since 1997, she has helped animals through Rancho Coastal Humane Society, the Pet Encounter Therapy Program at Helen Woodward Animal Center, and the Coastal German Shepherd Rescue. She has also spent about nine years volunteering with The Make a Wish Foundation of San Diego, which she said has given her “the pleasure of meeting some wonderful children and their families.” Johnson also volunteers in the OR/ICU waiting room at Scripps Hospital in Encinitas.
Dedicating more than a decade to a number of nonprofits has taught Johnson a thing or two about volunteering.
“If I were asked to give any words of advice to people who are interested in becoming involved in the world of volunteering, I’d tell them that you might find yourself committed to the goals of a particular organization, but hands-on volunteering just doesn’t feel right. There will always be an organization that needs your help and when you find it, you’ll know it.”
What brought you to this neighborhood?
When I decided to retire in 1997, I knew that I didn’t want to return to the snow and cold of Minnesota so I checked out Scottsdale, Santa Fe, Boulder, and San Diego. I met with a realtor in Del Mar and once I saw this house in Solana Beach, I knew I was home!
What makes this town special to you?
I love the small town feel, but I also love the proximity to the ocean. When I am driving along the coast as the sun begins to set, I realize how fortunate I am to live in a place that is on other people’s list of a vacation destination.
If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract, or improve in the area?
There is so much traffic on Lomas Santa Fe and Via de la Valle. I can’t imagine what it will be like when a Whole Foods is built at Flower Hill Promenade.
Who or what inspires you?
Because I am involved in a number of volunteer activities, I continue to be inspired by all the people who devote their time, energy, ideas, and resources to the many nonprofit organizations in the area. Without that support, most charitable organizations could not achieve their goals.
If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?
I’d invite Jane Goodall because of her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania, Dian Fossey because of her work with gorillas in Rwanda, Laurie Marker because of her work with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, and Susan Butcher, who was the first woman to win the Iditarod Dog Sled race three times. Then I’d ask the Make a Wish Foundation to invite four Make a Wish kids who have a sense of adventure and who love animals.
Tell us what you are currently reading.
I just finished Dan Morrison’s “The Black Nile,” and am beginning Bill Sherwonit’s “Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness.”
What is your most prized possession?
My memory of people, places, and events that have made my life what it is today.
What do you do for fun?
I’ve always loved to travel so that’s high on my list of fun things to do. When I am home, I love to walk at the beach, although my elderly dog is finding the sand a bit of a challenge. I also enjoy yoga, reading, and, of course, volunteering.
Please describe your greatest accomplishment.
I am fortunate to have a network of friends whom I’ve known for decades. We live in different cities and states but I know that if I needed to, I could call any one of them and they’d be there to offer support or advice — just as I would be there for them.
What is your motto or philosophy of life?
It was at his death that I read what Sargent [Robert] Shriver told graduating students at Yale in 1994: “Break the mirrors ... Shatter the glass in our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own.”