Former Whatcom council member ‘Corky’ Johnson recalled as friendly, flexible

Clark “Corky” Johnson was a Whatcom County commissioner for eight years and a County Council members for 10 years.
Clark “Corky” Johnson was a Whatcom County commissioner for eight years and a County Council members for 10 years. The Bellingham Herald

His given name was Clark Johnson, but everyone called him “Corky.”

A large man with a big smile and a good sense of humor, Johnson was a prominent figure in Whatcom County politics as county government shifted from three full-time commissioners to today’s seven-member, part-time County Council with an elected county executive.

Johnson served as a commissioner for eight years, then served on the new council for 10 more. He also served on numerous civic, charitable and state boards.

Johnson died March 10 in Bremerton at the age of 89. A funeral will be held in Whatcom County on Friday, April 3.

“Corky was a wonderful man to work with,” said Bellingham attorney Will Roehl, who served on the council with Johnson for a decade. “You could disagree agreeably with Corky.”

Tom Burton, who served on the council in the late 1980s, said Johnson was on friendly terms with everyone, including political opponents. As a council newcomer from Blaine, Burton said he made it a point to sit next to Johnson, because everyone who came into a meeting room or council chamber would stop to say hi and chat with Johnson.

“He was friends with everybody, even if you were on the other side of the table,” Burton said. “I wanted a little bit of that to rub off on me.”

Born in Spokane, Johnson grew up in Custer and Tacoma. After serving four years in the U.S. Navy, he returned to the family farm in Whatcom County.

He worked for the county road crew, the Mobil Oil refinery and for Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline before winning the 2nd District county commissioner’s post in 1972. As one of three commissioners with say over roadwork in their district, it was an influential full-time job.

That changed after county voters approved a home rule charter in 1979 that replaced the three commissioners with seven council members and a county executive. Johnson received an automatic seat on the new council.

Roehl and Burton said Johnson never showed signs of resentment or bitterness that he now held a part-time council position shared with six colleagues, instead of being one of three powerful commissioners.

In 1983, Johnson ran for county executive. He lost to Shirley Van Zanten but kept his council seat and stayed on the council until he stepped down in 1989. Johnson also owned and ran a hardware store at Hinote’s Corner.

Johnson was a fiscally cautious legislator but could be flexible. Businessman Craig Cole recalled the time he lobbied his fellow County Council members, including Johnson, to approve spending some money to help the city of Bellingham buy Mount Baker Theatre for preservation, rather than see it divided into a multiplex.

Cole said relations between the city and county were strained at the time because the city had closed its jail, adding that burden to the county jail. Still, Johnson agreed to support the theater money as long as the theater offered performances of interest to all county residents.

“He didn’t want it to be just toe-dancing,” Cole said. “Corky was really a county man. ... He reflected the straightforward county mentality of the time.”