One on one with Ambassador Brenda LaGrange Johnson - A life of privilege changed by chance (Part 1)
Published: Sunday | October 18, 2009
The big three, from left: Jamaica's ambassador to the United States, Anthony Johnson; former American ambassadors to Jamaica Brenda LaGrange Johnson and J. Gary Cooper at the American Friends of Jamaica Gala in New York.
Laura Tanner, Contributor
Call it chance, call it fate, but Brenda LaGrange Johnson's life of privilege has been altered repeatedly by happenstance. At first glance the platinum blonde with silken skin and a cheerful smile might be mistaken for a socialite. She is. But scratch beneath the surface and this cancer survivor with four children, a marriage of 41 years, seven years teaching in one of America's garrison communities, and another 27 as a successful business woman, and you find someone who promotes volunteerism by having herself repeatedly volunteered for religious and social-action programmes for the betterment of others in both her native United States and Jamaica.
LaGrange Johnson worked with Operation Head Start as an elementary school teacher in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; was a founding member of the Women's Board of the Boys and Girls Club of Madison Square Garden; served on the board of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, served on the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC and helped raise $US1 million for Rose Town in Trench Town during her service as US ambassador to Jamaica from 2006 to 2009.
Born 70 years ago into what she described as a 'magical' childhood in Forest Hills Gardens in the New York City borough of Queens, one of the first planned communities in the United States, she said, "It was the kind of community where, if you had a lighted candle in your window on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus paid a visit to your home. They still do the Christmas carol sing but not the Santa Claus visit. We belonged to a place called the Community House. This group still exists. Every year they have a reunion. There are over 100 of us and 45 of them came to Jamaica and visited me last October, which was just fantastic. I still have my best friends from the time I was born.
Frank LaGrange, her father, was a native New Yorker whose family owned a small hotel across from what is now Macy's in the 34th Street area of Manhattan. Ambassador LaGrange Johnson remembers: "He was a member of the New York Stock Exchange and on many, many boards. He believed that if you lived in New York you had to take advantage of all the opportunities. Therefore, we went to see every play that was ever on Broadway. Before he went to Wall Street he worked for Marshall Fields out of Chicago and he loved retail stores. If a new store opened, he wanted to be the first one to see it. If a new restaurant opened, he wanted to be one of the first to dine there. He believed in dining out. My mother was really not a very good cook and I'm not a very good cook but we do love all the diningexperiences."
She laments the lack of good, affordable restaurants in Kingston, a city of more than a million.
Although her father had four children from his first marriage, the youngest was 11 years older than Brenda, who was the only child of her parents. All her siblings are now deceased, as are her parents. Her mother, Eileen Morgan LaGrange, was born in Boston but raised in Montreal, speaking both English and French, leaving the ambassador many relatives in Canada.
She said of her mother: "When my father started his company on Wall Street, she took the test and became a licensed broker, working with my father for years. I can't really say she was a full-time working mother, but she was an example. It was unusual to have a mother going to the office. My mother was an amazing volunteer, which is where I think I got my kind of volunteerism. She taught Sunday school, I taught Sunday school. She worked diligently for her church."
See Part 2 next Sunday.