A tribute to Donald Alfred Johnston
By Stephen Hill
Published Oct. 10, 2017
Haliburton recently lost a wonderful community-minded citizen with the passing away of Don Johnston. It is a sad circumstance. Not only have they lost somebody who contributed much to the betterment of the town, but someone who did it, along with his friends and associates, out of community spirit, not for the personal accolades.
Don was born in Haliburton in 1926 to Sid and Jessie Johnston. Proud of the Scottish branch of his ancestry, he was emphatic that the “T” in the Johnston surname be pronounced. He, sister Doris and brothers Jack and Bill grew up on Victoria Street, conveniently across from the old Haliburton Public School, which he attended from 1932 to 1940.
Later, he attended the Haliburton Continuation School, graduating in 1944, during the days of the Second World War. That fall, Don enlisted in the Canadian Infantry Corps (Military Service No. B 165910), in which he served during 1944-45. Other than his military service days, he was a lifelong resident of the village.
To the best of our knowledge, Don was the last born-in-Haliburton-Village Second World War veteran. He commenced his working days at Walling’s Dairy in Haliburton as a summer job in 1942. This evolved into full-time employment after the war as their processor. The Wallings were good to him, treated him like family and, beside his regular work in the dairy, he often found himself helping them out on their farm. Later, foreseeing the eventual demise of the small-town dairy through corporate buy-outs and monopolies, Don studied refrigeration, with part of his training taking place in Chicago in 1961.
As a young man, Don always found time for athletic pastimes, playing hockey, baseball and golf, along with skiing and curling, the latter being his favourite sport. Around 1949, Don was part of the group who helped blaze the Haliburton downhill ski run up behind Extendicare. Its southern exposure was its undoing, but it was an excellent layout otherwise, and was a popular local venue for perhaps three seasons. Cross-country skiing was an alternative to the slopes, and Don was also a frequent participant in outings to the top of Drag Lake and back. As for curling, he was part of the team who organized the annual Skyline Bonspiel, which has run 58 times to date. Later, with his refrigeration certificate and working with a committee that included the late Joe Iles, Don arranged to bring artificial ice to the Haliburton Curling Club in the early 1960s. He was very active in the Curling Club, both as a curler, and in a management capacity.
When Walling’s went franchise with Silverwood Dairies in 1966-1967 and ceased processing in Haliburton, he moved on to the Haliburton arena, which he managed for seven years. Many are the former local puck-chasers who remember “Mr. Johnston” from their arena days. Don often lamented in later years “There are lots of lads around town who know me from the arena; I feel badly that I can’t remember their names, but they’ve all grown since I was there; why, some of them even have grey hair now!”
Don joined the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 129, Haliburton, late in 1946. In October 2016, he was honoured and acknowledged by Dominion Command for his 70 years of Legion service. During his Legion days, he was involved in several committees, including the Legion Carnival, which worked to raise money for many charitable causes and civic improvements in Haliburton. His various terms at the Legion, both as president or as a committee member, were always successfully productive and achieved their goals.
One of his tangible legacies is the Parklane Apartments in Haliburton, which opened in 1987, a Legion project that he and his committee helped initiate. This successful venture led to the later Echo Hills Apartments in 1992.
Dearest to Don’s heart was the music of the bagpipes. Highland music had always appealed to him; he frequently pondered the irony that Haliburton, being the Highlands, lacked a pipe band. Working together with esteemed West Guilford piper Earl Cooper, Don arranged for the Legion to sponsor aspiring local pipers, with the result that the Haliburton Legion Pipe Band was founded in 1970, “on St. Andrew’s Day, Nov. 30,” as Don often stated. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland. After much work and practice, the band held their first parade in 1972. It was a success, and the band continues today as the Haliburton Highlanders Pipes and Drums.
Don was the drum major for the band from 1972 to 1997, carrying the mace and leading the band on parade for those 25 years. While Don stepped down as manager of the Legion in 1985, he retained his interest in the Legion and the pipe band. In 1989, Don helped to organize the Haliburton Highland Games, an event which lasted for some years, initially in Glebe Park, then later downtown at Head Lake Park. Various Legion drumhead services were part of his accomplishments. Long after his retirement from the band, he frequently sat in to listen to their Summertime practices down by the government dock.
In the 1960s, Don was active in the Haliburton County Snowmobile Association, not just as a rider, but as a trail blazer and promoter. One of his proudest achievements was helping to re-open the dormant and overgrown Peterson Road, a former colonization road which passed through Haliburton County, for use as a snowmobile trail. Snowmobiling has been a large part of the local winter economy for several years thanks to the foresight of the HCSA members back in the mid-to-late ‘60s, and their successors.
In his retirement, Don took up the springtime hobby of making maple syrup, first at home, then up at brother Bill’s property in Harburn. He enjoyed the work, the outdoors, and the peaceful atmosphere as the syrup boiled away; a gift of nature that has long been a Haliburton County tradition.
In the last 20 years, Don was a frequent visitor to the Haliburton Highlands Museum. He became the museum’s source for historical information concerning who was who, which house was which, the ownership and operation of long forgotten local businesses and enterprises, and so forth. He knew the complete military service details of every Second World War veteran within the municipality. The museum is blessed with various hand-drawn maps which Don produced, showing former roads and properties within Haliburton, not to mention pages of notes, yet to be transcribed, documenting the history of Walling’s Dairy.
Concerning many of the positive aspects of the Haliburton community, Don left his mark. John Black Aird, Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario from 1980 to 1985, once said “I believe that the successful man puts more into life than he takes out.” THAT was Don.