Erik F. Johnsen, a steamship owner and maritime entrepreneur who reigned as Rex, king of Carnival, in 1991, died Tuesday at his New Orleans home. He was 97.
He died of complications of kidney failure, said his son, Erik Lee Johnsen.
A lifelong New Orleanian, Johnsen founded Central Gulf Steamship Corp. with his father and brother in 1947. The company, which provided marine transportation services to commercial and governmental customers, was renamed International Shipholding Corp. in 1978, with offices in New Orleans, New York City and Mobile, Alabama.
Johnsen retired as chairman in 2007 and continued as a director until 2012.
Innovator, problem solver
Throughout his career, he was an innovator, said John E. Koerner III, Johnsen’s son-in-law. For instance, Koerner said, Johnsen put train cars onto ships in Mexico to bring their contents directly to Mobile, shortening the travel time.
“He was a real problem solver,” Koerner said. “If there was a problem, he could find a solution.”
A child of the Depression, “he basically refused to lose,” Erik Lee Johnsen said. “He had an incredible drive.”
After graduating from Alcée Fortier High School, where he played first oboe in the school orchestra, Johnsen enrolled at Tulane University in September 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II. He volunteered for service and was accepted into the Merchant Marine Academy; his duties as a cadet included several trans-Atlantic crossings carrying war supplies.
He graduated from the academy in January 1945 with a third mate’s license and was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He kept sailing until 1947, when he returned to Tulane, from which he graduated in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Two years later, Johnsen was recalled to active duty in the Navy during the Korean conflict. He served three years, retiring as a full lieutenant to return to civilian life and build his corporation.
In addition to his determination to succeed in business, “I think Erik always wanted to try to create a better New Orleans,” said Christy Brown, a friend and former Rex.
Johnsen supported educational, cultural, business and religious organizations and served on a host of boards, including Tulane’s Board of Administrators, the Tulane Medical School Board of Governors and those overseeing the Isidore Newman School, the New Orleans Steamship Association, the World Trade Center and the Norwegian Seamen’s Church.
He was a president of International House, a co-founder and chairman of the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region and a member of the Trinity Episcopal Church vestry.
Johnsen was named Louisiana’s Maritime Man of the Year in 1971. In 2004, he received the Journal of Commerce’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
From 1981 to 1999, he was honorary consul of Norway for Louisiana and Mississippi.
In recognition of his business and civic endeavors, Johnsen was named Rex in 1991. In addition to reigning as Carnival royalty, he married it: His second wife, Dolly Ann Souchon Johnsen, was queen of Carnival in 1949, and she later taught Mardi Gras royalty how to walk regally and wield a scepter.
She and Johnsen’s first wife, Edna Dorothy Lee Johnsen, have died. His third wife, Barbara Viavant Johnsen, survives him, as do her children: James Vivint Broadwell Jr. of New Orleans, Deborah Broadwell Gordon of Covington and Marjorie “MiMi” Broadwell Bunn of Bremen, Alabama.
Other survivors are, from his first marriage, two sons, Erik Lee Johnsen of New Orleans and R. Christian Johnsen of Washington, D.C., and two daughters, Karen Klara Johnsen Baldwin of New Orleans and Anne Elisabet Johnsen Bailey of Covington; his second wife’s children, John Milliken Parker V of New Orleans, Kathryn Glenny Parker Brown of Atlanta and Ann Souchon Parker Koerner and Charlotte “C.C.” Parker Langenstein, both of New Orleans; and 26 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.
A funeral will be held Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Christ Church Cathedral, 2919 St. Charles Ave. Visitation will begin at 9 a.m.
Burial will be private. Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.