"The brilliant person is the person who does brilliant things and tells no one." ~ author unknown
Portland lost a real jewel of the animal community recently, when Phyllis Johanson passed away peacefully at her home, high in the West Hills, her husband of 62 years, George, at her side and her beloved cat Buster sleeping on her feet.
Born in 1925 in Sutton, Canada, Phyllis met her future husband George in 1955 in Ixmiquilpan, Hildalgo, Mexico, where they were both missionaries working to improve the conditions of the local people.
One day, George and Phyllis bonded over a kitten. Someone had tarred the poor kitten, and the two worked for days to save him.
George jokes about what occurred two weeks later. "I asked her to marry me. She said, ‘Do you like cats?’ I said yes, of course." Two weeks later they got hitched and soon established their home in Portland.
George says he saw a harbinger of his wife's soon to be vocation when a friend brought over two homeless kittens for Phyllis to choose from. Phyllis took both, and created clever hammocks out of a wooden clothes rack. Soon the Johansons had 10 cats, most found by their young son, Aaron.
Phyllis began a long and successful series of campaigns feeding feral cats around Portland. One location: the bushes in the parking lot of the City Club. For a year and a half, George drove Phyllis (who didn't drive) there every night around midnight. An accomplished artist, George says they supported each other throughout their 62 years together; Phyllis attended all his openings and inspired much of his work.
Phyllis found a new colony of needy cats at PGE Ballpark. She managed to arrange for the spay, neuter, and feeding of dozens of them. Working with the park managers, Phyllis convinced them the cats were a great asset, keeping the rodent population down. Once, she even went on the field to feed a cat during a game!
Phyllis then took her own game to a whole new level, joining forces with local vet, Dr. Ralph Plomondon, who was as passionate about pet overpopulation as she was. They worked together to change the status quo, the massive euthanasia numbers at local shelters at the time. They founded The Responsible Pet Ownership Council and did groundbreaking work, including printing and distributing low-cost spay and neuter coupons.
For about 10 years George says Phyllis gave her phone number to anyone who had pet problems. She spent hundreds of hours on the phone, day and night, counseling folks. She always said, "It is a people problem not a pet problem." George remembers one piece of advice Phyllis gave a person troubled by a barking dog next door. "Bake some cookies," she said, “and go over and talk to your neighbor and tell them their dog is lovely, but barks a bit." George still has dozens of notebooks filled with notes about Phyllis’s many cases.
Long before computers, Phyllis would spend hours on the phone, newspaper in front of her, matching lost and found pets and reuniting many pets and their people.
Her helping heart and hands went beyond animals. Residing near the Vista Bridge (once known as Suicide Bridge), she would see folks ready to jump, and fly down the block to speak with them. She gave some a bit of cash, telling them to go get cleaned up. They always did.
Lisa Brown Sandmire, a volunteer with FRiends of Shelter Animals, another of Phyllis's projects, says, "The first time I met Phyllis at her home was so eye-opening for me. It was heartening to know there were people like that in the world. She was so plugged into the agencies and really knew how to get things done for animals."
Vida Lohnes, good friend and animal advocate, had a similar take. "In the ‘90s and beyond, I could always turn to Phyllis, look up to her, and consult with her. She had so many great ideas and was constantly testifying at agencies and hearings. One thing she always told me was to help animals, go local. She was practical, no nonsense. She was such a force.”
The list of Phyllis's accomplishments is huge, and we will never truly know all the amazing things she did, for people and animals. Very tight lipped, Phyllis never touted her accomplishments. But those lucky enough to know her knew, and so did she.
Born in Washington, Connie Theil loves greyhounds, donkeys, cats, parrots, dogs, and crows. Now retired, Connie studies the Weimar Republic, gardens, refurnishes old furniture, rescues cats and dogs, and visits her son in Boston.