George Johnson, businessman with a heart for kids, dies at 86

George Johnson, an Atlanta developer and philanthropist, had a passion for education and working to keep students from dropping out of school.

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George Johnson, an Atlanta developer and philanthropist, had a passion for education and working to keep students from dropping out of school.

George Johnson made his mark on metro Atlanta as a real estate developer, building Powers Ferry Landing, the Cobb Galleria, and many hotels in Buckhead, Midtown, and downtown Atlanta.

But his legacy is the uncountable number of young people he helped by supporting Communities in Schools (CIS), a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk students succeed by working with school systems to pull together food, access to technology and school supplies and emotional support.

“I happen to be a glass half full person,” said CIS founder Bill Milliken. “He was one for whom the glass is overflowing. He said yes there are problems out there, but we can make a difference.

“Anne Cox Chambers (the late primary owner of Cox Communications and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) and George were our first board members and gave us our start financially,” Milliken continued. “To have a businessperson like that believe in you and open up doors and set the table to present our work, we wouldn’t be here today without the two of them.”

“George was by far the most philanthropic and charitable person I have ever known. His generosity was unequaled, and he motivated the part of us that wanted to be charitable to be even more charitable,” said Atlanta financial advisor and longtime friend Robert Arogeti.

George Harvey Johnson died April 25, 2022, in Boulder, Colorado, of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 86.

Johnson was born March 16, 1936, in Tampa, Florida, and his family moved to Atlanta when he was nine months old. In high school, following a football injury, he started skipping school, and his father tracked him down at a pool hall one day, according to his son Parker: “He’s got a beer in one hand and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and he’s leaning over the pool table.”

Johnson was sent to Darlington School in Rome, a boarding school, and would later say “it turned out to be the most important thing to happen to him up to that point,” Parker said.

He graduated cum laude, then attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a B.S. in business administration and met his future wife Janet. They were married 62 years.

Back in Atlanta, he went into real estate development with his partner of 40 years, Charles Barton. They worked in the city and around the Southeast.

In 1973, Johnson had breakfast with Milliken, whose CIS project in Atlanta was in its earliest stage, and agreed to help fund it. With the help of Johnson, Chambers and others, CIS went on to become a national player in education and last year helped 1.6 million students in 26 states stay in school and graduate.

“I would guarantee you that over 50 years, George Johnson has given this organization way more than $1 million if you add it all up,” said Frank Brown, CEO of CIS.

Janet Johnson credits Milliken and his partner Neil Shorthouse with “igniting his call to philanthropy and service.”

“He was totally awed by their vision to serve at-risk, inner-city youth, and he lined up behind them,” she said.

“I think he was probably overwhelmed in gratitude and humility by his success,” said Parker. “And the more successful he became, the more philanthropic he became. And he definitely made a connection between the two — in his heart, he felt they were directly correlated.”

Parker thinks the teachings he heard at Atlanta’s Trinity Presbyterian Church also played a role in his father’s giving.

At the 1989 Washington Charities Dinner, Johnson was presented with the U.S. Presidential Award in recognition of his contribution to youth. In 2007, UNC-Chapel Hill created the George H. Johnson Prize for Distinguished Achievement by an Institute of Arts and Humanities Fellow. In 2014, in recognition of his fundraising, Darlington School honored him in the naming of the Johnson-Drummond Amphitheater.

In 2016, Johnson received the Anne Cox Chambers Champion for Kids Award in recognition of his work for CIS. “We raised more than $500,000 that night honoring George’s legacy, the highest grossing event we ever held,” said CEO Brown.

He and Janet moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2019 to be closer to family.

Johnson is survived by his wife Janet; daughter Jennifer Johnson (John Rippel); son Parker Johnson (Ashley) and their three children; sister Ruth Johnson Lane; sisters-in-law Dot Johnson Booth and Alice Fletcher Johnson; and many nieces and nephews.

The family suggests donations to Communities in Schools, https://www.communitiesinschools.org/, and Partners in Change, which offers free life coaching to encourage upward mobility, www.partnersinchangeusa.org/.

A memorial service in Atlanta will be announced at a later date.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for George Johnson