First Executive Director Was ‘Face’ of Omaha Bar Association

By 
David Golbitz
The Daily Record

The Omaha legal community lost one of its strongest advocates when former Omaha Bar Association Executive Director Mardee Johnston passed away on Jan. 13, six weeks shy of her 85th birthday.

Johnston, who went by Korinek until her marriage to George L. Johnston in 2018, was hired as the OBA’s first executive director in October 1981. She held the position – originally titled “executive secretary” – for a remarkable 26 years.

Lyle Strom, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska in 1985, hired Johnston when he served as OBA president. Omaha attorney J. Terry Macnamara was the association’s treasurer at the time, and he said he always enjoyed ribbing Strom about his tenure as OBA president – despite threats of being held in contempt.

“I have said, especially in the presence of Judge Lyle Strom, that the only good thing you ever did in 1981 was hire Mardee Korinek to be the first executive director of the Omaha Bar Association,” Macnamara told The Daily Record. “We always had a good laugh about the fact that Lyle was responsible for making the Omaha Bar Association much better off than it had been before, when we did not have Mardee Korinek.”

David Houghton, who served as the 1993-94 OBA president, agrees that Johnston was instrumental in the bar association’s growth.

“Omaha’s been blessed with a great bar association and she made it better,” Houghton said. “If I had the power, I would have made her an honorary lawyer long ago.”

Houghton remembers her smiling face in particular.

“I can guarantee you she would be smiling when you met her and that’s the way she would appear every other time you saw her,” Houghton said.

Johnston was 72 when she retired, though in retirement she remained heavily involved with the OBA. She attended many association events – many that she began in her tenure as executive director – right up until the start of the pandemic last year.

“Even in retirement, Mardee was a regular at events, much to the delight of all the attorneys whom she knew and welcomed at the registration table,” current OBA Executive Director Dave Sommers said.

Thomas Grennan, who worked with her as the first editor of the OBA newsletter, said she was deeply connected with the organization.

“She was the face of the Omaha Bar Association,” Grennan said.

Donna Birkby, executive director of the OBA’s Lawyer Referral Service and Johnston’s friend of 31 years, said that growing the association was one of her colleague’s top priorities.

“She had a way of drawing people in,” Birkby said. “So she would do this with the attorneys, and especially new ones who had just graduated law school. She always made them feel super, super welcome.”

Birkby said the OBA had about 700 members when she began working there in 1989. That had doubled by the time Johnston retired in 2007.

“With membership, it was, if they got involved and they felt welcome, she knew the numbers would go up,” Birkby said. “She would get them involved and then they would be on committees or they’d become an officer of the association, so they could share in their bar association.”

Sommers said she was an inspiration.

“So many leaders were encouraged to step up by Mardee,” Sommers said.

Jennifer Petersen, who joined the OBA Executive Council in 2002 and served as president in 2012-2013, counts herself among those Johnston guided into leadership positions.

“In particular, she took a quiet pride in supporting young women leaders of the OBA,” Petersen said. “In her diplomatic way, she made certain that women were represented at the head table of events so that the women leaders of the OBA were visible to the membership. I can personally say that I would have never been president of the OBA without her support.”

Johnston also was known for her fierce professionalism and attention to detail in all aspects of her job. Birkby remembers that she always carried with her a steno notebook to every meeting and every event.

“At each event, she would intensely watch and listen, making notes,” Birkby said. “Early on, I asked why she did that. She said, ‘I always want each event to be better than the last one,’ and they were.”

Petersen said that the OBA would not be what it is today without her tireless work.

“She laid the foundation and set the exceedingly high standards that make the OBA a great members organization,” Petersen said. “To say she will be missed is an understatement. She was one of a kind and I will always be thankful that I had the privilege to know her, to work with her and to learn from her.”

Johnston grew and transformed the OBA for more than 26 years, Sommers said, and her influence will be felt for years to come.

“Her positive impact on this organization cannot be overstated,” he said.

Johnston is survived by husband; children Kurt Korinek (Suzy), Kreg Korinek (Kristin), Kris Korinek (Lisa), Michelle Hellmann and Sean Johnston; and eight grandchildren. Memorials will be directed by the family in lieu of flowers.

A private family service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday, with a livestream available at heafeyheafey.com. A larger celebration of her life will be scheduled later this year.

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