Our Opinion: Carrying on the work of the late Tom Johnston
How do you measure the impact of a life?
How much can one person give of themselves to the world?
What is the change made in the world that person leaves behind?
Forest Grove lost one of its most prominent citizens this week. Tom Johnston, best known to friends as "T.J.," was a longtime Forest Grove police officer who ran for, and won, a seat on the Forest Grove City Council after retiring from the force. In addition to serving on the council — for the past 10 years, as council president — Johnston was active in nearly every social club and fraternal organization in Forest Grove, and a few outside of Forest Grove as well.
Johnston was famously affable. He was the kind of person who showed up at every occasion with both wry humor and wise words.
He was well-liked and well-respected. In many cities, the position of council president rotates between councilors every two or four years. In Forest Grove, Johnston was the obvious choice for council president when Pete Truax was appointed mayor in 2009, and he's been the council president ever since.
He was indefatigable. Retiring in 2001 ended Johnston's lengthy career as a police officer, but it started myriad others. He worked as a student supervisor for several years at Forest Grove High School. He was elected to the City Council. In his last decade of life, he worked for Fuiten, Rose & Hoyt Funeral Home, applying his estimable social skills to helping people during one of the most difficult times in their lives. He even served on a statewide board to improve rural communications, touring remote parts of the state and talking to people about their wants and needs.
If you measure impact by depth, Johnston had a deep one. He was a leading voice in city government during a transformative time for Forest Grove, which passed into a recession and out the other side and is now growing toward 25,000 residents for the first time in its history. After we sat down with Johnston for an endorsement interview last fall, we came away distinctly impressed by his command of the issues facing the city, its history and his institutional knowledge. He has helped to mold the direction of Forest Grove for the past 17 years, and in his role on the county and state emergency communications boards, places beyond Forest Grove as well.
If you measure impact by breadth, Johnston had a wide one. We knew him best for his work in city government, but Johnston was also a charter member of the Forest Grove Elks Lodge, a former president of the Forest Grove Daybreak Rotary Club, a longtime parishioner at St. Anthony's Catholic Church, and a member of boards and commissions nearly beyond count. He served both the city police department and the local school district. His children and grandchildren have gone on to lead impactful lives of their own; son Matt Johnston is the spokesman for Forest Grove, Banks and Gaston's fire agencies; daughter Sara Marshall co-owns popular Forest Grove restaurant Miget's Island Grill; and grandson Riley Marshall put up big numbers for the Gaston Greyhounds basketball team before graduating this past spring and heading to his granddad's alma mater, Blue Mountain Community College.
If you ask how much one person can give, Johnston sets a high bar. He was student body president at Blue Mountain, and while he was in Pendleton, he moonlighted as a reserve police officer. He found time for the Elks, the Rotary, the Freemasons, the Shriners and many more, even as he served on the City Council and other governmental bodies, even as he worked jobs right up until the months before his death. He volunteered as a firefighter, because putting his life on the line in service to the community as a police officer, and later sergeant, apparently wasn't enough. He and his wife, Raean, raised three kids. He was vacationing in the Cascades — he spent as much time in the great outdoors as possible — when he noticed an uncharacteristic shortness of breath that led to his leukemia diagnosis.
If you ask what difference in the world Johnston made with his life, consider that it might be you.
Johnston lived his life at the extreme, absurd end of a bell curve, one to which the vast majority of us can merely aspire. Most of us don't have the virtually limitless energy it takes to devote so many hours to being with people, serving people and putting oneself out there for the sake of people. Most of us don't have that same charm and charisma. Most of us don't have that same assuredness. Most of us, probably, don't have that same overriding love of place that led Johnston to give so much of his life to making Forest Grove a safer, warmer, better place.
But for us, it's impossible not to feel challenged to step up. Tom Johnston is gone. Who fills those mighty shoes? Who is the next person to step up? Who will serve out the rest of his council term? Who will assist the people he assisted at the funeral home? Who will do what he did for the clubs and organizations to which he belonged?
It won't be just one person. Life doesn't work like that. You can't subtract somebody from this mortal plane and replace them wholesale, like you're recasting a character in a soap opera. Many people have to step up now.
And it's not just in Forest Grove. Every community could use a Tom Johnston, a person who is willing and able to do it all, or at least, far more than his fair share. But every community needs many, many people to stand up and say, "I can't do it all, but I will do this." That's how we divide the labor of a society. That's how we build a community. That's how we carry on a life's work. It takes a collective effort that starts with — yes — you.
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