JSJ leader, philanthropist Mart Johnson dies

Marie Havenga • Mar 1, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Dottie Johnson says she will never forget the words her husband, longtime local businessman and philanthropist F. Martin “Mart” Johnson, said to her in the wee hours of Monday.

At about 3 a.m., the retired president and chairman of the board of JSJ Corp. got up, then returned to bed.

“I said, 'Sweetheart, I love you,' and kissed his forehead,” Dottie said Monday afternoon. 

Mart said “I love you” back to Dottie. And those were to be the last words she would ever hear from her husband of 53 years.

Mart, 81, died in his sleep that morning.

“He loved Grand Haven and he was always deeply concerned about the employees at JSJ,” Dottie said, catching herself and noting how unusual it seemed to talk of her husband in the past tense.

According to those who knew Mart well, his presence will forever be present.

“He laid the foundation for an amazing legacy that we all can be very proud of,” said Holly Johnson, director of the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation and niece (by marriage) of Mart. “He was the patriarch of the Johnson family without a doubt. We admire his abilities in running JSJ, our family's corporation. His work with the community foundation dates back to our founding days (1971). He was definitely a part of the vision of what this community foundation could and might be for our community.”

Holly said Mart left positive impressions wherever he traveled. And he traveled often. He and Dottie explored “every nook and cranny of the world,” according to Holly.

“The impact he made around the country was amazing,” Holly said. “He definitely had a wide philanthropic reach.”

But perhaps his biggest footprint remains right where he took his first steps as a baby — Grand Haven.

Joy Gaasch, president of The Chamber Grand Haven-Spring Lake-Ferrysburg, said Mart was “kind of an institution in our community,” active in Rotary, past president and chairman of the board at JSJ Corp., and a spark plug in many community projects.

“If there was a project to be done, he'd roll up his sleeves and help get it done,” she said. “He was an amazing man. He's left a legacy in this community through his company, JSJ, and in the way he lived his life. I don't think there was a project that has occurred in this community in the last 50 years that, in one way or another, Mart wasn't a part of.”

Shortly after Gaasch started with the local chamber of commerce in 2000, she said her organization tried to present Mart with the first-ever “lifetime achievement award” in 2001. He would not accept on his own.

“It's just the kind of guy he was,” Gaasch said. “He said, 'It's not about me, it's about our company.'”

So, The Chamber ended up presenting the award to JSJ Corp.

Mart and JSJ helped with a multitude of local projects, including the Musical Fountain, boardwalk, sundial, Mulligan's Hollow, Imagination Station, Harbor Island redevelopment, YMCA, Coast Guard Festival, schools, Scout troops, Habitat for Humanity, hospice and The Salvation Army.

“They've really touched anything and everything in this community,” Gaasch said of the Johnsons.

Mart graduated valedictorian of his class from Grand Haven High School, and then studied at Stanford University and Harvard. He worked in finance in New York City, then returned to his hometown in 1965 to become part of the family business.

JSJ was founded in 1919 when the Johnson and Jacobson families combined talents to launch Grand Haven Brass Foundry. When the foundry burned down, B.P. Sherwood, president of Grand Haven State Bank, partnered with the Johnsons and Jacobsons to finance and rebuild the business, and the families and their descendants have been partners ever since, according to JSJ CEO Nelson Jacobson.

Jacobson said the JSJ family, and the community, has suffered a great loss with Mart’s death.

“He was an extraordinary leader and somebody who had great visions for the needs of the community,” Jacobson said. “He took on so many really important roles — hospital board, Community Center, power plant, commodore of the Spring Lake Yacht Club. ... On a statewide level, he was chair of the state Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the state economic alliance. He was a trustee and president of the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation and served as a naval officer.”

The list is almost endless, and so is Jacobson's praise for his mentor. He said Mart’s return to Grand Haven after working in New York City was “the greatest gift.”

“He came home with an idea of being a part of the family business and structuring it in a way that it could not only continue into the second generation, but into the third generation,” Jacobson said. “Mart set the structure and, most importantly, the values for us to build and continue to develop a great company that I think is a tremendous employer and tremendous steward of giving back to the community. He was extremely proactive in wanting all of us to find a way to participate in the community. He was very deliberate in that we also give of our earnings because the community is what supports the company and the employee base. He was very philanthropic.”

Jacobson said Mart had great vision — not just locally, but globally. Mart was the push behind the company expanding into China.

“He wanted to make sure we were preparing ourselves to not only reach 100 years, but also the next 100 years,” Jacobson said.

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