A local life: Dora Johnson, 74, was a formidable advocate at work, in community

July 14, 2012

For 40 years, Dora Johnson helped feed the hungry and homeless of Washington in the soup kitchens of Martha’s Table and St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church. She insisted meat be added to the basic meal of beans and rice.

“Why?” she was asked. “It already has plenty of protein.”

“These people want meat,” she replied. “Put some meat in it.”

Meat was added.

When she first moved to Mount Pleasant in the mid-1960s, the Northwest Washington neighborhood was scruffy and down at the heels, and it remained so for several years. It was a common occurrence for Metrobus drivers to leave the bus stop with passengers still waiting to board.


Dora Johnson was a community volunteer and worked for many years as a program associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics. (Family Photo )

Their buses were too full, the drivers said. Often those left waiting at the stop were schoolchildren, including two who were Mrs. Johnson’s.

“After the kids could not get on for two or three mornings, Dora showed up,” a neighbor, Doug Huron, wrote in an e-mail. “When the bus arrived, she stood in front of it — and would not move until the driver had told the passengers [to] move to the back, so the kids could get on.”

Mrs. Johnson could be formidable, to be sure. But she also made popcorn, which for decades she distributed annually to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. “She was known to all the neighborhood children as ‘The Popcorn Lady,’ ” said a friend, Dunstan Hayden.

Dora Johnson, 74, died of pancreatic cancer June 26 at her home. The death was confirmed by her daughter, Alicia Koun­dakjian.

In her professional life, Mrs. Johnson was a program associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics, a private, nonprofit organization that supports and encourages the teaching of less commonly taught languages, such as Pashto, Hindi, Urdu, Turkish and Arabic.

Her work included the development of learning standards and establishment of a support network for the teaching of Arabic in U.S. elementary and high schools. It was her dream, she once said, that Arabic would become “an accepted language to be taught” in the public schools of the United States.

Mrs. Johnson spoke English with no discernible traces of a Middle Eastern accent. “I had known her for 10 years before I realized that English was not her first language,” said Meg Malone, a colleague at the Center for Applied Linguistics.

Dora Esther Koundakjian was born Oct. 13, 1937, in Beirut. She was named for Dora Spenlow, the “child-wife” of David Copperfield in the Charles Dickens novel, which her mother was reading at the time. Her native language was Armenian, but she also quickly learned Arabic, Turkish, French and English.

In 1957, she received an associate’s degree at Beirut College for Women (now Lebanese American University) and then came to the United States to study linguistics. In 1960, she graduated from Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky.

Years later, when her children were growing up, her son, Martin, would tease his younger sister, Alicia, that the Transylvania diploma was “proof” that their mother was a vampire, linking her to Count Dracula, whose castle was said to have been in the Transylvania region of Romania.

In 1964, Mrs. Johnson received a master’s degree in linguistics at the Hartford Seminary Foundation in Connecticut. She then came to Washington and began her career at the Center for Applied Linguistics.

At the center, she conducted and published surveys on materials and needs, developed language learning materials and worked on literacy issues for adults whose first language was not English. She helped write survival phrase books for refugees, edited language policy papers for the U.S. Agency for International Development and participated in surveys of teaching materials for less commonly taught languages. She retired in 2009.

Her marriage to real estate investor R. Bruce Johnson ended in divorce.

Survivors include two children, Martin Johnson of St. Paul, Minn., and Alicia Koundakjian of Washington, who took her mother’s maiden name; a brother, Philip Koundakjian of Des Moines; and a granddaughter.

Mrs. Johnson was a vivid presence in her community. She served on the board of the Stoddard Baptist Nursing Home in Washington, and she played piano at the Sunday services of the Community of Christ fellowship in Mount Pleasant, a lay-led ecumenical congregation. For several years, she participated in the Christmas Eve pageant at Washington National Cathedral, dressed as a clown.

On Christmas and Thanksgiving, there was always a place at her dinner table and plenty of food for anyone having nowhere else to go, said a friend, Dorothy Pohlman.

In an effort to spruce up her neighborhood, Mrs. Johnson regularly patrolled the blocks near her home with a pair of long-
handled pincers, picking up trash.

Not long after moving to Mount Pleasant, she planted a flower garden in her yard. As soon as the flowers bloomed, neighborhood children picked them and ran off. This enraged her family.

“Dora would tell us to calm down, that they were picking for their mothers,” Philip Koundak­jian said. “She felt that if she kept the yard clean and pretty, neighbors would start doing the same.”