Jasper Treasures: Bill Johnston

·6 min read

Bill Johnston loves to help people and the community in general.

Now living close to Edmonton, the former Jasperite had many adventures when he grew up in town and became an integral part of minor sports over the years.

Johnston was born in Jasper on June 24, 1944, to Freda and Cliff Johnston. He joined three sisters, Wilma, Shirley and Bev, who were all born in the 1930s.

“My dad came to Jasper in 1927 from Lucerne where the Canadian National Railway terminal was before it was moved to Jasper,” Johnston said. “Mom came to Jasper in 1930 for the summer to work at Jasper Park Lodge and she never left.”

Freda and Cliff later got married in 1933.

Johnston said he enjoyed wandering around and exploring as a young lad.

“I saw lots of animals – lots of bears,” he said. “They used to come into the back alleys and eat garbage. It was a very normal occurrence.”

Johnston never got too close to these bears, except for that one time.

“When I was six or seven years old, I was sitting in the backyard reading and eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich,” he said. “I heard a noise and looked up and saw a bear climbing over the fence, about ten feet away from me. I screamed and yelled and ran around the house to the front door.”

His mom quickly checked the backyard, but Johnston figured his screams scared the curious bear away.

Johnston said his favourite subject in school was recess. He has fond memories of a couple of teachers though. Miss Mazurek, his Grade 5 teacher, was his favourite in elementary school.

“She was nice all the time and seemed to be interested in what students were doing,” he said.

In high school, Johnston noted his social studies and English teacher, Mr. Long, made an impact.

“He was a really fun man, always telling stories,” he said. “He had a dry sense of humour.”

Johnston was an industrious sort and worked at a variety of jobs during his time in school. Starting when he was about the age of 12, Johnston had a paper route for a couple of years.

“There were five or six of us,” he said. “We had certain sections around town, about five or six blocks each. We’d all go down and meet the passenger train to pick up the Edmonton Journals, then deliver them in the evening.”

Johnston was an usher at the Chaba Theatre year-round, working for a couple of hours each evening.

“I watched every one of the movies shown,” he said. “Growing up, we didn’t have TV, so movies were the main entertainment.”

He worked as a gas jockey at a couple of businesses in town too and also at CN in the car department. He and his co-workers used to oil trains and supply passenger trains with ice.

“We put them underneath the coach,” he said. “They had great big boxes for ice. It was the air conditioning of the day.”

Johnston graduated from Jasper High School in 1963 and he did summer maintenance for the Jasper School District, including cutting grass and painting. In the fall, Johnston enrolled in a telecommunications course at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) but it wasn’t his cup of tea and after a month he returned to Jasper.

Johnston signed up with CN in the car department a few months later, making sure everything was in place mechanically during the midnight shift.

After about six years, Johnston got promoted to the day shift, which he worked for another six years. Then it was time for a change.

“I got tired of chasing trains, so I got a job at the new Activity Centre,” he said. “I looked after customers at the front desk. I was also a security co-ordinator, making sure doors were locked at the Activity Centre and the schools.”

Johnston also did scheduling and booked times as the ice co-ordinator, including for hockey tournaments. In the summertime, he handled bookings for the ball diamonds.

“I administrated the slo-pitch league for a few years,” Johnston said. “It was run by the recreation department.”

Working in such a busy part of Jasper, “I probably knew everybody in town,” he added.

Johnston worked in minor sports for quite a few years, starting in 1967 coaching baseball and hockey teams while serving as president of the Jasper Minor Sports Association for seven or eight years.

In 1972, during his time as president, girls 13-to-15 years of age wanted to play softball. Johnston’s search for coaches was in vain, so he took it on for ten years.

“A year later, these girls talked me into coaching hockey,” he said.

Johnston kept busy at the Activity Centre from 1977 to 1998.

“I enjoyed it,” he added. “I met a lot of nice people.”

It was time for a change for Johnston, and he moved to Edmonton.

“I worked for ten years driving for a courier company,” he said. “Then I retired in 2009. That’s the best job I ever had – being retired. I kept busy, relaxing, going here and there.”

In 2014, one of the places Johnston went “here and there” to was Facebook.

“I had a sudden inspiration to start a group for Jasper people called, ‘Jasper, Alberta, In the Good Old Days’,” he said. “It was just an inspiration. I thought I’d get people together to talk about the good old times.”

Johnston got his idea off the ground by sending invitations to a handful of friends on Facebook. Their friends told their friends who told their friends and the rest is history.

“Now there’s about 3,300 people,” said Johnston, who is the administrator for the group. “People connect with old friends. You could probably write a history book about Jasper with all the things that are posted on that site. It just amazes me how much stuff is on there.”

Johnston loves Jasper but a few factors including lack of accommodation in town and his eyesight – he’s almost blind – are keeping him close to Edmonton. The trouble with eyesight started way back in his childhood.

“When I was seven or eight, I got hit in the eye with a rock walking by kids in a rock fight,” he said. “It started out as a minor injury but got worse and worse.”

Johnston started wearing corrective lenses when he was 12 but said it wasn’t a big impediment until a couple of years ago. Today, he has some vision in both eyes, but everything is blurry. He listens to talking books and can still navigate on his computer, thanks to magnification and light settings.

“I met and worked with an awful lot of pretty wonderful people in Jasper,” he said. “And I’m grateful for that. I have made good friends here in Edmonton, and there are a lot of people from Jasper who live in Edmonton, and we keep in touch from time to time.”

Joanne McQuarrie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh