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Friends remember beloved professor

Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson walked in to teach her first seminar at the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences three years ago and stared at the fledgling first-year master's students who sat in their first class as graduate students.

"'You know, because I'm small, a woman, a mother and have a high voice, people think I'm nice,'" now third-year student Andrew Hutson remembered Garcia-Johnson telling the class. "'I'm here to tell you that I'm not.'"

The comment took the wind out of Hutson, he told a group of several hundred people who gathered in the Chapel Monday to remember Garcia-Johnson, who died last week of cancer at age 34.

Familiar with Garcia-Johnson's genteel nature from his interaction with her at the University of Michigan, Hutson approached her after that first class and asked her to explain.

"'Shhhh!' Ronie said. 'I know that I'm nice; don't blow my cover!'" Hutson remembered. "Apart from being the most hyphenated professor at Duke, Ronie was a good friend, adviser, mentor and just the most caring person you can have as a teacher."

Hutson was just one of a number of friends, colleagues, students and family members who shared their memories of Garcia-Johnson at the somber, touching and often humorous memorial service.

Deirdre McCarthy-Gallagher, Garcia-Johnson's freshman roommate at Harvard University, said her best friend had a zest for life that was contagious and brought joy to the lives of everyone around her.

She recounted for those in attendance the story of their running of the Boston Marathon, 14 years ago Monday. At around mile 21, she was considering stopping and going home, when Garcia-Johnson caught up to her and told her that they would finish the race together.

"As soon as I saw Ronie, I knew I would finish the race," McCarthy-Gallagher said. "I will run it in honor of Ronie next year. I know her spirit will carry me through."

Husband David Johnson recalled one of the couple's first Valentine's Days together back at Harvard. On crutches from a recent injury, Johnson - in love but not very mobile - made it out of his dorm to buy flowers and candy for Garcia-Johnson. When he arrived at her dorm room to deliver them, she laughed at him.

"She had bought exactly the same bouquet, only with twice as many stems, and the same bar of chocolate, only twice as big," Johnson told the audience. "Whatever I bought her, she returned to me, but doubled."

Sophomore Chris Paul, who worked as a research assistant under Garcia-Johnson while still a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, said she taught him to try to change the world from "a grand perspective."

He remembered Garcia-Johnson's helping him, as well as freshmen in Randolph Dormitory where she served as a faculty-in-residence, make the transition into college life.

"Ronie exuded community," Paul said. "She treated a whole dorm of first-year students as her family."

Friend Jeannine Bell remembered Garcia-Johnson as a great cook who did not believe in measuring things.

"She taught me that sometimes you have to re-invent yourself," Bell added.

Nicholas School colleague Marie Lynn Miranda, Garcia-Johnson's closest friend at Duke, said she will always remember her friend's crazy shoes - from the Mod Squad and bowling alley varieties to the bright orange spike heels she wore even while pregnant with her second child.

Miranda, Gabel associate professor of the practice in Environmental Ethics and Sustainable Environmental Management, said she will also never forget Garcia-Johnson's familiar "There you are," every time she walked into the room.

"She made you feel you were exactly the person she wanted to see, talk to, listen to - that you were the person she wanted to be with at that moment," Miranda said.