Remembering Bob Johnston – an officer and a gentleman
Those tuning into the evening news July 9 listened and watched as RNC Chief Joe Boland spoke about his friend and retired police chief, Robert Johnston.
Johnston died of brain cancer the previous day. He’d turned 60 in June. Boland took viewers through Johnston’s policing career, his progression through the ranks, the numerous accolades awarded him through the decades.
But it was the chief’s more personal comments that left those watching realizing just how many people Johnston had touched throughout his life. Boland described Johnston as someone who wanted to make a difference in the community, a man who had a significant impact on those who met him.
“He had a saying: ‘People won’t remember sometimes what you said or what you did, but they will always remember how they felt when you left them’ … He always made you feel better any time you had a conversation with him and walked away,” Boland said.
As a freelance writer, and Eastern Canadian correspondent for Blueline National Police Magazine for over 15 years, I had many conversations with Johnston through the years.
My final interview with him was in February 2014. Johnston had tendered his resignation as chief. His departure came after the official opening of the newly renovated RNC headquarters in St. John’s. Johnston told me that his work-related bucket list was now complete. After 35 years in the force, the timing was right to retire.
Passion for policing
He spoke of his passion for policing, his confidence in both the force’s officers and civilian employees. While policing had changed over the years, he said, the constant was the people that the force worked hard to protect; some he will never forget.
Johnston spoke of several cases that stayed with him though the years including the young O’Brien boys. The three children went missing with their father Gary O’Brien. Their mother, Diana O’Brien (now Saunders), is a courageous woman, he said.
“We will always follow up on new leads but looking at the evidence after we found the engine block (of Gary O’Brien’s car) in the ocean … there was a higher probability that it could have been murder-suicide. Diana looked me in the eye and said, ‘I don’t think that’s the case.’ She said, ‘I’m going to continue to have hope’ and I admire her so much for that.”
Saunders was among the first of hundreds to comment on Johnston’s passing when it was posted on the RNC’s Facebook page.
“Rest easy Bob, the battle has ended! I will always remember your gentleness and compassion given to me during my time of need… thank you! My sincere condolences to his family, he was a wonderful person indeed! God Speed Bob,” Saunders wrote following her comments with a red heart icon.
Former president of MADD’s Avalon (NL) chapter Christine Care posted that, during her years working at provincial court, Johnston was one of the best officers she’d encountered.
“I will always remember his kindness to me and my family when my mother was killed in an alcohol-related crash,” Care wrote.
Betty Gallop described the news of Johnston’s passing as heartbreaking. “Bob was such a sweet and wonderful person. He was always so nice to me when I worked at the RNC,” she wrote.
Johnston was described by others as down-to-earth; as an officer and a gentleman.
Novelist and former journalist Brian Callahan wrote how Johnston epitomized what it meant to be an RNC officer and chief of the force. “The perfect blend of empathy, intelligence, and professionalism,” he wrote.
During my final interview with Johnston as police chief he spoke of other opportunities policing brings to see just how strong the human spirit can be. He recalled responding to a call of a sudden death. He was a young father and plain-clothed member of the force’s Criminal Investigation Division at the time.
A baby had died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). A uniformed officer and paramedic were at the home when Johnston arrived.
“The lady was carrying the lifeless child in her arms. She wouldn’t give (the baby) up. She eventually gave me the child to carry in my arms in an unmarked police car to the hospital. She felt that there was still some hope that her child might come back but that if (the baby) went in a marked car or in an ambulance she was afraid she wouldn’t see her child again.”
Hope over fear
Before the interview concluded, Johnston spoke of how he was looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Gloria, and daughters Sarah and Amanda.
“My wife and I had very busy careers but we are best friends and we have no idea what the future will bring. I know we will both want to be challenged. I believe it’s important that everybody has purpose,” he said.
Johnston was diagnosed with Stage 4 glioblastoma in 2017.
In July 2018 he and his wife opened their home to a media crew from CBC television. The couple put a face to, and educated people about, glioblastoma.
Viewers saw how Johnston counted his blessings. He chose hope over fear. Leonard Cohen said, “Reality is one of the possibilities I cannot afford to ignore.”
As his obituary notes, Johnston faced his reality by fighting fiercely and courageously, without complaining. He focused on how thankful he was for the incredible life he had and the wonderful, supportive people who were his family (he’d recently become a proud grandfather to his precious grandson, Jack), friends and colleagues.
Hundreds of those people turned out to pay their final respects to Johnston on July 12. Those wearing police uniforms left the church together when the funeral service concluded. For some of these men and women, their tears were as obvious as the police hats tucked beneath their arm.
Just hours before the funeral, Const. Georgina Short who acted as medals bearer during the service, updated her Facebook status, offering condolences to Johnston’s family and friends.
“Our hearts are broken for the loss of our dear friend and beloved Chief Johnston. We will always carry his spirit with us, we miss you already,” Short wrote.
(Ret.) Insp. June Layden also shared her thoughts via Facebook following Johnston’s passing.
“I lost a friend yesterday, he certainly left this world a better place,” Layden wrote.