ST. PAUL -- Ten months into the pandemic, the Lakeshore Players Theatre in White Bear Lake, Minn., was pivoting like a sailboat in a hurricane.

They’d laid off employees, switched to virtual performances and applied for grants, hoping to ride out the storm.

Then, suddenly, a call came shortly after Christmas that changed everything.

Former Minnesotan Betty Wold Johnson, a matriarch in the Johnson & Johnson family, had died May 5, 2020. In her will, she left her $2 million vacation home on White Bear Lake to the Lakeshore Players Theatre.

“We got this news and we were like, oh man, this is just amazing, unexpected, and completely amazing,” said Peggy Witthaus, board president of the theater. “You could have knocked us over with a feather. The three of us who initially knew had to just sit down. It took a little bit of time for us to understand that it was real.”

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The board knew in January, but had to keep it under wraps until the legalities were hammered out. At the end of March, they were finally able to tell the world what Johnson had done for them.

“She wanted us to have a guaranteed future,” Witthaus said. “We’re now in a position to set up an endowment.”

Generous and humble

Betty Wold Johnson was born in St. Paul in 1921 to eye surgeon Dr. Karl Christian Wold and Maybelle Lundgrengrew. She often attended Golden Gophers games with her father.

According to her obituary in the New York Times, she enlisted in the Navy’s WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) after the attack on Pearl Harbor. During World War II, she met and married Robert Wood Johnson III, the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, founder of the Johnson & Johnson Co.

“She had that hearty Minnesota attitude where you don’t complain and you don’t explain — you just carry on and get the job done,” her son, Woody Johnson, a former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland, told the Times.

She was married to Robert Johnson until his death in 1970. In 1978, she married Douglas Bushnell.

Her sons, Christopher and Woody, own the New York Jets. Betty was often called “The First Lady of the Jets.”

Besides sports, Betty was a great supporter of the arts. During her life, she contributed to numerous organizations such as the Nature Conservancy of New Jersey, the Liberty Science Center, the Arts Council of Princeton, the Princeton Public Library, the New York City Opera, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center.

She also had been very generous in White Bear Lake, contributing to the Lakeshore Players’ capital campaign, helping them in 2018 to move from their old home in a Lutheran church to their current home at the brand new Hanifl Performing Arts Center on U.S. Highway 61.

“She was unbelievably generous and she liked everything to stay anonymous,” said Sally Burton, caretaker of the house in Dellwood for 35 years. “She was top notch. I can’t say enough about her.”

A family retreat

The 4,724-square-foot house, located at 70 Dellwood Ave., sits next to the White Bear Yacht Club. Visible from the lake, its notable feature is an expansive ivy-covered pergola along the front of the house, supported by about two dozen pillars.

“It is one of the most recognizable houses on the lake because of that pergola and columns,” Witthaus said.

The house is one of several around White Bear Lake built by movers and shakers of the early 1900s in the Twin Cities, such as Lucius Ordway (founder of 3M), the Archers and the Daniels (who founded an agricultural business in 1902 that is now called ADM). Other wealthy business owners joined later, such as the Wold family.

The foundation of the house is believed to be built by John Daniels, possibly in 1910, although the house as it looks now has changed over the years.

Peggy Witthaus, president of the board of directors of the Lakeshore Players Theatre, is pictured outside a mansion on White Bear Lake on Friday, April 16, 2021. Former Minnesotan Betty Wold Johnson, a matriarch in the Johnson and Johnson family who died May 5, 2020, left the $2 million vacation home on White Bear Lake to the Lakeshore Players Theatre. Emma Gottschalk / St. Paul Pioneer Press
Peggy Witthaus, president of the board of directors of the Lakeshore Players Theatre, is pictured outside a mansion on White Bear Lake on Friday, April 16, 2021. Former Minnesotan Betty Wold Johnson, a matriarch in the Johnson and Johnson family who died May 5, 2020, left the $2 million vacation home on White Bear Lake to the Lakeshore Players Theatre. Emma Gottschalk / St. Paul Pioneer Press

The Wolds used it as a summer home. Eventually the house was sold and Betty moved to the east coast where she lived until she died in New Jersey at age 99.

In the 1980s, Betty bought the house back and used it for family reunions, graduations and weddings.

In the early days, the Johnsons would cruise the lake in a wooden Chris Craft boat.

“They all sailed,” Burton said. “All the kids were sailors.”

The house used to have a couple of three-season porches until Betty had them walled in. The family would hang their sails on hooks in the house to dry. Burton said the hooks are still there on the living room wall.

Described as an English Country Manor, the two-story house has five bedrooms and multiple windows and glass doors to capitalize on the views. The property has at least three 200-year-old trees, which Burton said Betty took special care of because she loved trees and would not cut any down unless it was absolutely necessary.

The Lakeshore Players have an offer pending on the house. They are selling it and its contents to create an endowment to ensure a long life for the theater.

“Final decisions about (the donation) will be made once the house sells and we know how much we’re working with,” said Rob Thomas, the theater’s executive director. “The money derived from the sale will be focused on ensuring a stable future for Lakeshore Players Theatre for decades to come.”