Mrs. Elizabeth (Betsy) Johnson Gill entered her eternal rest on March 6, 2018, in Laredo, Texas.
The longtime Laredo resident leaves a lasting public legacy of generosity and service to the causes she supported — many of them related to historic and cultural preservation and the arts.
Mrs. Gill leaves, too, a private and lesser-known legacy of kindness and support of those in whom she recognized need.
She was the granddaughter of Silas N. Johnson who arrived in Laredo by train from New York in 1881, trading his gold watch for passage. An entrepreneur, Silas Johnson established a soda bottling works (later the Coca Cola Bottling Company), the Anheuser Busch beer distributorship, and the S.N. Johnson Brick Company. He and his wife Katherine Dunamon Johnson were the parents of Samuel Norman Johnson, Mrs. Gill’s father.
Elizabeth Johnson Gill was born in Washington, D.C. on May 13, 1925 to Elizabeth Korbly Johnson and Samuel Norman Johnson Jr., an attorney who studied law at Georgetown University. Upon the family’s return to Laredo, her father practiced law with Robert Phelps and later served Webb County as its attorney and as a county commissioner for 18 years.
Though Mrs. Gill and her brother Sam N. Johnson, III lived some of their early years away from Laredo, they returned often to spend summers with their father and grandparents. She had vivid recall of cherished memories with her grandparents at their turn of the century Victorian home at 1414 Farragut Street, their farm South of Laredo, and her own childhood home at 1614 Market Street.
She graduated from Our Lady of the Lake High School in San Antonio and continued her studies at Incarnate Word College.
Silas Johnson gave Sam Johnson, Jr. the Coca Cola Bottling Company in 1930, and upon Sam’s death in 1962, the company was held in trust for two years and was then subsequently purchased in 1964 by Mrs. Gill and her brother Sam, III.
Mrs. Gill married L. Lamar Gill in 1963, and he became president of the company and managed it while she assumed the role of vice-president. Her son Paul Payne, Jr. became general manager in 1977 and took full direction of the Laredo
Coca Cola Bottling Company when Lamar Gill died in 1988. Mrs. Gill, served as president until the company was sold to Coca Cola Enterprises of Atlanta in 1992.
An avid historian possessed of immediate recall of Laredo’s history from the 1900s forward, she had much to share with other archivists and historians. Mrs. Gill was a founder of the Webb County Heritage Foundation and one of its greatest benefactors. Her invaluable personal collection of family papers, documents, and photographs in the Foundation’s archives provides a deep well of information on the social, cultural, and economic history of Laredo after the advent of the railroad. She was a champion of the preservation of local history and a proponent of the tenet that school children benefit from the lessons of their own history and that of Laredo and the border region.
Mrs. Gill was a driving force for the preservation of downtown’s architectural treasures. She was a leader in the restoration of the Republic of the Río Grande Museum and more recently of the restoration of the condemned downtown building that was transformed into the showpiece that is the Heritage Foundation’s Border Heritage Museum. She could be considered the guiding light and biggest benefactor behind the establishment and success of the Heritage Foundation, and a mentor to staff and board members, alike. Up to her death, she was Advisor Emerita on the board of directors of the Webb County Heritage Foundation.
Mrs. Gill was also a member of the Webb County Historical Commission, the Webb County Archaeological Society, the Villa San Agustín Laredo Genealogical Society, the Laredo Center for the Arts, the Laredo Art League, and Los Caminos del Río. She served as a member of the City’s Historic District Landmark Board, the City’s Tree Board, the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Ad Hoc Committee for the design of the Laredo Public Library, Texas A&M International’s Fine Arts Building Advisory Board Committee, and Webb County’s 21st Century Committee.
Those who recall that the Webb County Commissioners Court proclaimed May 27,1997 Elizabeth Johnson Gill Day remember her surprise and somewhat reluctant delight at the recognition. An extremely private individual, she shied from attention to her philanthropy, public and private.
In 1993 and 1995 she was the recipient of the Webb County Heritage Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award and its Meritorious Award in 1997.
She was named a laureate of the Junior Achievement Laredo Business Hall of Fame in April of 1999, and in 2010 was inducted into the Laredo Women’s Hall of Fame.
Despite Mrs. Gill’s reserved demeanor, she shared with those close to her an unassuming manner, a refined sense of humor, and loyalty. When a problem presented itself at a friend’s doorstep, she was resolute in the belief that every adversity had a solution. For many who loved and admired her and were fortunate to have her wise counsel, she herself was often that solution.
Mrs. Gill was preceded in death by her father, Samuel N. Johnson, Jr.; mother Elizabeth Korbly Kumpe; husband L. Lamar Gill; son Paul B. Payne; and her brothers Charles Korbly Johnson and Samuel L. Johnson, III.
She is survived by her son David Edward Payne of Goliad, Texas; her grandchildren Johanna Lynn Payne (Keith) Perkins of San Antonio, Texas and Andrew Lawrence Payne of Houston; great-granddaughter Claire Perkins; and daughter-in-law Janet Moglia Payne. The family wishes to thank her caregivers Adrienne Gonzalez, Diana de la Cruz, Santiago (Chago) Arevalo, Martha Garcia, Sabina (Mine) Garcia, Steve Harmon, Becky Sepúlveda, and Jim Moore.
Those wishing to honor her memory are encouraged to further the missions and work of the Webb County Heritage Foundation: P.O. Box 446 Laredo, TX., 78042; or the Sacred Heart Children’s Home: 3310 South Zapata Highway, Laredo, TX., 78046.
Memorial visitation will be Wednesday, March 14, 2018, from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm at Fred Dickey Funeral & Cremation Services. A rosary will be recited at 6:00 pm followed by a chapel service at 7:15 pm. Msgr. James Harris will officiate.
Funeral arrangements are by Fred Dickey Funeral & Cremation Services, 1320 Trey Dr. Laredo, Texas (956)723-3611. You may leave condolences to the family online at www.freddickey.com