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Johnston championed the rights of others

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, August 21, 2012, at 6:17 a.m.

For decades, Colleen Kelly Johnston was one of Kansas’ strongest voices in championing the rights of women, gays and lesbians, and in saving many of Wichita’s historic landmarks.

“Nobody’s surprised that I’m proud to call myself a liberal,” Ms. Johnston, a Democratic Party and pro-choice activist told The Eagle in February of 1995.

Co-founder of the Wichita Chapter of the National Organization for Women and often an advocate for gay rights, historic preservation and other issues, Ms. Johnston died Saturday. She was 79.

Memorial services will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Wichita State University’s Hughes Metropolitan Complex, 5015 E. 29th Street North.

Colleen Marie Kelly was born Oct. 21, 1932, in Wichita. Growing up, she attended Blessed Sacrament grade school and was a 1950 graduate of Mount Carmel Academy. She received her associate degree in elementary education from the University of Wichita in 1955 and her bachelors from WSU in 1980; her masters in political sociology in 1984 and an associate degree in management in 1991.

On Sept. 3, 1953, she married James Phillip Johnston. She worked for years as the business manager at Johnston Law Offices in Wichita.

“She had many interests in civic and political life,” her son Kelly Johnston said. “Many of those blossomed during the women’s rights movement. I think it was simply that she began to spread her wings to the issues of the world. She had the individualism and character to do that. Her marriage enabled her to take flight.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, Ms. Johnston became active in the women’s movement. She was co-founder of the Wichita Chapter of the National Organization for Women and would eventually serve on NOW’s national board. She founded the Women’s Political Caucus in Kansas and the Women’s Equality Coalition. She served on various local government boards including the Inner City Task Force, the Historic Landmark Preservation Committee, Citizen’s Participation Organization boards, the Human Resources Board and the Wichita Traffic Commission.

And, in the 1990s, Ms. Johnston became a leading voice locally on abortion rights.

She would tell The Eagle in 1995 that the “Summer of Mercy” protests of 1991 didn’t change the way she thought about abortion but reaffirmed her belief that people should not force their religious practices on others.

“She had an indomitable spirit,” said Kerry Johnston, her daughter. “She was fiercely independent and respected all people and wanted that respect returned for everyone. She was an enemy of any kind of discrimination. I never doubted her resolve or wondered why she was doing it. She was a humanist and it was the right thing to do. She and Dad are both that way.”

Ms. Johnston was co-founder and served as the vice-president of the ProChoice Action League and in 1990 was a keynote speaker for the National Coordinators for Gay-Lesbian Rights.

In May 1996, Ms. Johnston, while serving as the first chairman of the Historic Landmark Preservation Committee, wrote a letter to The Eagle speaking of her struggles as a preservationist.

“The Landmark Committee has fought bitter struggles to save what we could of Wichita’s past. In its first five years … we started the rejuvenation of what is now the flourishing Old Town district, three historical districts and more than 20 homes and structures. We battled real estate developers, slumlords, St. Francis Hospital and governments. Some structures were torn down or irreparably damaged in the dark of night.”

She was listed in Who’s Who among the World’s Women and Who’s Who in American Politics.

In her spare time, she was a poet and wrote a number of political and social articles.

“Many of her poems were about Ireland,” said friend Myrne Roe. “She was Irish to the core.”

Ms. Johnston is survived by her husband, six children, 15 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

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