Described as someone who busted a lot of barriers and “lived life out loud,” Gwinavere Johnston was considered a trailblazer when she started her own public relations firm in Denver in 1971.
The Johnston Group grew into JohnstonWells, one of the larger public relations firms in the region. The company’s clients included Coors, US West, Qwest, Wells Fargo, Pacificare and Goodwill Industries.
“She busted through a lot of barriers early on,” her daughter, Gabi Johnston, said Monday.
The elder Johnston died Nov. 1. She was 75. Her family said in an obituary that Johnston “took advantage of the medical-aid-in-dying” state law after struggling with her diagnosis of progressive supranuclear palsy.
Johnston was a Wyoming native, growing up in the Sheridan and Douglas areas. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Wyoming and then moved to Colorado, where she made a name for herself in the business world.
“She traveled all over the place, to Prague, Japan,” Gabi Johnston said. “When she was wasn’t traveling for work, she was traveling for pleasure.”
Johnston was dedicated to her profession, family members said. She served as president of IPREX North America, a partnership of independent public relations firms throughout the world, from 2004-08. In 2011, she was inducted into the Denver Press Club’s Hall of Fame.
Kate Oravez worked at JohstonWells after moving to Colorado from California in the mid-1990s. Oravez, now vice president of external affairs at Comcast, worked with Johnston for four years and collaborated with her after moving on to other positions. She said Johnston had a hands-on leadership style and was fearless, a trait she found to be contagious.
“She encouraged others to be the same. It was empowering and inspiring,” Oravez said. “You think about what was going on when she started (her firm). She was a true pioneer.”
Johnston was an inaugural member of the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation’s Leadership Denver Class. She served on numerous boards, including Mile High United Way, the Colorado Judicial Institute, the University of Wyoming Foundation, Wyoming Business Council, Denver Athletic Club, Outward Bound and Colorado Business Committee for the Arts.
It was important to Johnston to give back to the community and she encouraged her employees to do the same, said Kate Stabrawa, who worked at JohnstonWells from 2002-08. The job was Stabrawa’s first upon moving to Denver after college.
“One of the things I loved most about her was that she was willing to give chances and take chances,” said Stabrawa, a senior communications director at DaVita. “She took a chance on me. And she really took chances as a businesswoman. She would take on really hard projects.”
Johnston was just as determined when it came to personal relationships, keeping in touch with friends and former employees and acting as a coach and mentor, Stabrawa added.
After going into semi-retirement, Johnston officially quit work in 2016. The firm was then closed.
“She just had so many dimensions,” Gabi Johnston said. “She could be silly. She could be harsh at times. She was driven, but she was vulnerable. She was refined, but she would wear some of the ugliest Christmas sweaters of all time.”
Her daughter is keeping some of those sweaters to remember her mother by.
Johnston was one of five “Gwinaveres,” starting with her mother and including her other daughter, who is called GG Johnston.
The family plans a celebration of Johnston’s life at 2 p.m. Friday at Quebec Place at Fairmount Cemetery, 430 S. Quebec St. in Denver. They have asked people to wear, at least a bit, of Johnston’s favorite colors — red, orange or yellow.
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