Feature

When it comes to human potential, Norine G. Johnson, PhD, has always believed the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

APA's 109th president--and ninth female president--has worked to empower women, men, psychologists and families by imparting psychological knowledge and fostering connections over her 30-year career. During her term, Johnson plans to push this tendency further.

"I see my presidency as an opportunity to draw together all the constituencies of psychology to work on the issues facing our country and our profession," Johnson says.

 She will use this philosophy to foster three presidential initiatives:

  • An effort called "Psychology Builds a Healthy World," which seeks to empower psychologists to make positive changes in health-care research and delivery systems.

  • Retooling psychology's graduate professional education and training system to better integrate today's knowledge with the needs of today's clients and doctoral students.

  • Expanding research and practice opportunities for scientists and practitioners alike.

If anyone can fulfill these missions, it's Johnson, say those who know her.

"Norine has tremendous dedication--she loves psychology and she loves APA," says former APA president and long-time Johnson colleague Dorothy Cantor, PsyD. "She knows how to read what different constituencies need and want. And she has vision."

"I smile every time I see it happen," says APA Treasurer Gerry Koocher, PhD, of Johnson's trademark trait. "When someone is composing a group that she's involved with and they're not considering its diversity enough, you can count on Norine to tweak them."

A creative drive

In many of her endeavors, Johnson has acted as a trailblazer, assessing unclear or difficult situations and using creative drive to change them.

When she began an 18-year stint as director of psychology at Kennedy Memorial Hospital for Children in Boston in 1970, she found the psychology department woefully understaffed and underequipped. Besides Johnson, there was only one other psychologist and a part-time secretary working in the department.

Johnson wasted no time. "I went to the administration, figured out their agenda, did a needs assessment and positioned psychology to meet those needs," Johnson recalls.

When she left the hospital in 1988, the program had 35 staff members and an APA-approved training program specializing in a range of therapy modes. Johnson had successfully challenged several of the hospital administration's sacred cows, including not allowing parents to visit their children and the notion that troubled youngsters couldn't lead normal lives in the community. In addition, psychologists became the primary consultants and psychotherapists for all inpatient units serving the hospital's poor, multiethnic, troubled youngsters.

Seeing the conditions faced by the hospital's young patients "radicalized" her to understand what the children and their families really needed--in her view, better community connections, Johnson says. When she left Kennedy, Johnson launched a private practice career in Boston. Shortly into this new life, she received a serendipitous phone call from John Malloy, the director of special education in a town in Massachusetts.

"'We're getting together a program for next year, and we thought of you,'" she recalls him saying. "'We wondered what you might have to offer.'"

"I remember looking out the window, thinking for a few minutes, then saying, 'I want these kids to be able to go to school with their neighbors and not have to go off to a hospital or residential program.'"

Given the novelty of the idea at the time, "I never expected to hear from him again," Johnson chuckles. But she did and even pushed the boundaries further by saying she'd only serve as a consultant under specific conditions: having unlimited access to every special education administrator in southeastern Massachusetts; being able to interview each administrator for at least an hour to assess his or her resources and needs; and commanding a hefty fee for her consulting services.

Malloy's staff agreed to all of her terms and she spent the next several years changing the direction of special education services in that part of the state. As a result, she is considered an early pioneer of "mainstreaming," the notion of integrating those with mental and physical disabilities back into the community.

Psychologists as health-care professionals

Johnson has since plied her abilities in other arenas. She currently co-chairs APA's Commission on Education and Training Leading to Licensure in Psychology, which is looking at issues of doctoral training and readiness to practice. She recently launched two new psychology-related businesses, adding to her other two professional practice businesses in the Boston area. In September, she helped shape a mental health agenda for the nation's children as part of the September Surgeon General's Conference on Children's Mental Health.

In addition, Johnson has been heading an effort to include the word "health" in APA's mission statement. The concept was supported by the Board of Directors at its meeting last June and will go to APA's Council of Representatives next month. The new definition, she believes, will aid psychologists' inclusion in mainstream health care and help them be better heard in deliberations about a new health-care system, she believes.

"What psychologists contribute to the biobehavioral way of looking at the human condition is worth crowing about," Johnson says. "I feel very strongly that we can't keep this a secret. You can't separate the mind and the body--to build and keep health requires a respect for both and the integration of the two. That's what psychology is all about."

Models of success

Strong female relatives helped mold the person she is today, Johnson says. Her relationship with her maternal grandmother, Verna Gentry Collings Derby, was the most powerful influence of her early life. A mother of four who grew up in the Kentucky hills, Derby was widowed at an early age and left with few resources and five mouths to feed.

"Late in her life, she told me a story about sitting at the dinner table about six months after her husband's death and realizing she'd continued to set a place for him," Johnson recalls. "She said to herself, 'Verna, you silly fool, he's dead.'" Derby looked hard at her situation and made an unorthodox decision for that time: to pursue a nursing degree in Louisville rather than allow relatives to care for her.

"At that time, women were always valued for enduring, but my grandmother enacted, she didn't just endure," Johnson says. "Talk about strength!"

Johnson is now writing a children's book about her grandmother's life.

Her mother likewise displayed strength, compassion and independence. She was a journalist, social worker and later teacher who worked to ensure that migrant children received a good education. Johnson's many aunts also held qualities that gave her an abiding respect for women's strengths.

"What they had in common was that they all held their own," Johnson says. "They were all educated, they were all health professionals and they all loved their children."

Her childhood molded her to never play certain traditional female roles. "During holidays, I saw all of the women in the kitchen serving foods while the men were talking and having fun. I wanted to be where the conversation was," she says.

Carrying those feelings into her professional life, Johnson fought to give women and minorities more power in APA governance. In 1993, she co-chaired a conference with Judith Worell, PhD, on feminist issues in psychology. From 1995 to 1998, she co-chaired the APA Presidential Task Force on Adolescent Girls with Karen Zager, PhD. Recently, she's lent her expertise to the first museum dedicated to the history of women, The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future in Dallas, which opened in September (see related article.

As much as Johnson feels it's important that women be equally included in professional opportunities, she is as concerned about groups that include only women as she is about all-male groups. "I don't think it brings out the best in our discipline when we don't have everyone at the table," she says.

Not far from the tree

Johnson is as deeply committed to her family as she is to her profession. She shares a strong personal and professional bond with her husband, Wayne Woodlief, chief political columnist for the Boston Herald, and with her three daughters, Cammarie Johnson, Kathryn Johnson and Margaret Johnson, their husbands, Charles Burlile, Shane Wedge and Matt Fraidin, and with her three grandchildren, Kate, Max and Taylor. She takes no work-related calls in the evening, and holds sacred her commitment to taking her grandchildren to the zoo.

She and Woodlief "enjoy each other's professional lives and our lives together," Johnson says. "He edits my writing, and I like to think my psychological knowledge enriches his writing."

Johnson, an avid traveler and scuba diver, also encourages Woodlief's adventurous side.

But as traditional as she is in her belief in a strong family life, Johnson has held to her vision of not roasting the Thanksgiving turkey.

"My husband does a lot of the cooking," she laughs. "My own developmental pathway was that I tried to figure out what society expected from women," she says, "then figure out how to take the good from that but not be thwarted by the limitations."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.