Helen Cordier Johns

June 24, 1925 - Aug. 4, 2014
Helen Cordier Johns - June 24, 1925 - Aug. 4, 2014

Helen Cordier Johns, who had an abiding commitment to social justice and diversity and worked on causes from integration to the support of AIDS patients, died on Aug. 4 in Richmond, Va. She was 89.

Throughout her life, Ms. Johns spent as much time as she could in East Hampton, in a house she built next door to one her maternal grandfather, Howard Ogden Wood, had built in the late 19th century on Georgica Pond. According to family lore, the house was constructed on the spot where a goose fell during a hunting trip to the area.

Born on June 24, 1925, the daughter of the former Helen Ogden Wood and Auguste Julien Cordier, she grew up here and in New York City. She attended the Chapin School and graduated from Chatham Hall in Virginia.

After two years at Vassar College, she returned to Manhattan. On June 29, 1946, she married Thomas Nelson Page Johns at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton, embarking on the “interesting and challenging life of a surgeon’s wife,” her family said.

She completed her Bachelor of Science degree at Johns Hopkins and later pursued a master’s degree in French, which had been her first language.

The couple had six children. The family moved in 1954 to Richmond. Mr. Johns died in Cambridge, England, in 1986.

After her husband’s death, Ms. Johns pursued her love of languages, studying Greek and Italian until she was in her 80s, and continued to travel extensively, enjoying culture and visiting far-flung family and friends.

Ms. Johns was known for her energy, keen intellect, and hospitality, as well as her selflessness, curiosity, playfulness, and occasional irreverence. She enjoyed bringing together diverse and interesting people of all ages at eclectic and elegant dinner parties.

In East Hampton, she was a member of St. Luke’s, the Maidstone Club, and Guild Hall.

She was an early advocate of racial integration, and in the early 1990s began to minister to those with AIDS. She took great pride in attending vigils against the death penalty and discrimination and injustice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. She had a strong commitment to justice for all those marginalized by laws and society, her family said.

Ms. Johns is survived by her children: Frank Stoddert Johns II, Helen Julia Saunders, and Auguste Johns Bannard of Richmond, Jeanne Johns Cassin of Groton, Mass., and East Hampton, Thomas N.P. Johns Jr. of Edina, Minn., and Derek MacGuire Johns of Huntsville, Ala. Eleven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren also survive.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 22, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, the Rev. Gary Jones presiding.

Donations have been suggested to the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, 2124 North 29th Street, Richmond, Va. 23223, or to CARITAS, P.O. Box 25790, Richmond, Va. 23260-5790.