Charles M. Johnston

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The Canadian Baptist Historical Society held its annual meeting for 2014 this past Saturday at McMaster Divinity College. As this year marks the centenary of the Great War, the papers for this meeting were dedicated to commemorating it in relation to Canadian Baptists. Gord Heath of McMaster presented on the Boer War as a precursor to World War 1, looking at Canadian and New Zealand Baptist responses to it. I presented the chapter that I co-wrote with Michael Haykin on Canadian Baptist responses to the War, which was a real privilege for me. But by far the highlight lecture was given by McMaster’s official historian.

Charles M. Johnston penned the authorized history of McMaster University, a two-volume work published in the 1970s. Although it is out of print, it remains a major source for any researcher looking into the period we were exploring on Saturday. As I wrote my chapter last year, Johnston’s first volume was always ready to hand. So, when I heard Dr. Johnston was presenting, I was thrilled. And I must say, he far exceeded my expectations.

Dr. Johnston is now 88 years old, and is legally blind (though he can see if he holds an object close to his eyes). I didn’t realize this when he ascended the lectern. All I kept thinking was, “He looks like Jack Palance.” I did notice, however, that he did not have any notes with him. I was sitting next to Dr. Haykin, who leaned over to me to whisper Johnston’s age, with a sense of marvel in his tone. Finding out that the reason he had no notes was due to his blindness amazed us even further.

I must say, even if Dr. Johnston had his notes, I would have been thrilled with his lecture. It was wonderfully crafted, beginning with a biographical sketch of Bernard Trotter, whom he likened to being Canada’s version of Siegfried Sassoon, and then winding to another sketch of the great Canadian intellectual Harold Innis. He also discussed the role that women played in Canadian physics during the war, and the great cost to McMaster as a result of her sending men overseas. He was gregarious, hilarious, and incredibly informative. It was a lecture I could only give in my dreams.

And to think, he delivered this wonderfully crafted lecture—that went for over an hour—without recourse to notes!

I wanted to give him a standing ovation at the end of it.

When I spoke with him and his lovely wife after the meeting, and thanked him deeply for such a wonderful talk, I was delighted to find out that she was a major reason why this lecture was so excellent. After he typed it, using a computer at 26 point font, she read and reread it over and over to him to help him commit it to memory. I thought that was deeply touching. Every once in a while, during his talk, I would glance at her, and she sat totally riveted to her husband, smiling at certain points. What a wonderful team!

May God help me to have that kind of marriage, and that kind of ability as an historian when I’m 88! Dr. Johnston was a real model for us, and put us all to shame.