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Small acts of kindness

Tom Boyd

Bedraggled and sleepy after a bout of final exams, I once ran into Paul Johnston on an otherwise unremarkable morning. Needless to say, I wasn’t in my best form, but I stopped to say hello and asked Paul how he was doing. Before he answered, he left me with this little gem, now one of my favorite all-time phrases.”Hey dude, you look like you’ve been shot at and missed and sh*t at and hit.”Despite myself, I had to laugh.That’s it, I thought: You never know when Paul Johnston’s going to strike.As an active and seemingly omnipresent long-time local, Paul’s bound to show up just about anywhere, and when he gets there, he’s likely to tell you exactly what’s going on (in no uncertain terms).Perhaps it’s his Oklahoma upbringing, or his time as a rodeo cowboy, or his unquenchable creative vigor which helped power Vail’s early days. But it’s also because of his face, which seems to have some sort of internal light, and which seems incapable of being anything short of extremely expressive.There are times when he looks at his wife, Sally, and everyone in the room can feel the strength of their unity. Once a very solitary and evasive young woman, Sally became an integral part of Paul, and he of her, more than 35 years ago. Her self-confidence began as she was growing up in a skiing family in Port Leyden, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. There she learned strength and independence from her hard-working mother and three equally strong-willed sisters. Her education was fortified by her father, who was principal of the local school, and her mother, who taught the arts and music, among other things.It took a guy like Paul, who is well-known for his ability to speak straight and get things done, to reel her in and bring her to Vail.Since their arrival, Paul and Sally Johnston have been pillars of the community. Although Paul came to town in the 1960s, he returned with Sally in 1976 as the owner of Vail’s Christiania Lodge. The two have accomplished much since. Sally is on the Vail Mountain School Board and the board of Third Way (a charitable group based in Denver). Both of them have taken up roles in the Vail Religious Foundation and are pro-active about their Christian faith. Paul was Vail’s mayor for three years, was on council for seven, and is recently retired from 15 years on the Vail Valley Medical Center board. He currently gives time as a hospice chaplain, helping people find peace as they die.That’s just the beginning: there are many more accolades which can be attributed to the duo. But Paul has another saying, one that has a different tenor than the one above, and he and Sally both live according to its principles: “The world has yet to see what one man can do when he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”Although they don’t seek it, the two of them have many admirers, people who have benefited from their magnanimity and caring. Paul and Sally don’t simply do their charity work and call it a day. They don’t simply volunteer part-time to help those in need, or donate funds to a group whom they appreciate. They do, in fact, do all of those things, but they also give of themselves every day, non-stop, simply because it is part of their nature. It’s these little things, which generally go unnoticed, which their friends and acquaintances so vociferously pointed toward during the interviews for this story.”She’s always been like that,” said Renie Gorsuch, Sally’s sister and neighbor. “I used to say that if somebody ran over her with a truck she’d get up, brush herself off, and say that she didn’t think they meant to do it.”In a time when women were often taught to be submissive and demure, Renie said she and Sally’s mother taught strength and independence, and put education first and foremost.”My mother said, ‘If it kills me I’m going to educate my daughters and they’re going to have a certain look in their eye when they’re past 40, and they’re going to be able to take care of themselves.'” Renie said.And Sally certainly has that ability but she also has Paul.Swirling dervishPaul and Sally met through their friends, Bill and Sally Hanlon. Before Paul was married to Sally, he ran the Nu Gnu nightclub with Bill in 1960s Vail and Paul developed a reputation around town as a memorable character. The Nu Gnu car, a Dodge Charger, was swirled with colorful paint, and Paul himself was just as colorful. He shaved his head bald long before Michael Jordan made it popular, and he sometimes wore a cape that matched his personal flourish.That was also the time that Paul transformed from a pro-military man into a passionate pacifist. His life in Oklahoma, he said, had taught him a “gung-ho” attitude toward the military. But the situation in Vietnam, and the attitudes of his close friends, helped him look at war in a new way.”I had been gung-ho, but when a person that you know begins talking about the hot-button issues (of the day), it wasn’t so easy to demonize them.” Paul said. “I began to listen and understand, and think about what our country was doing. That was the beginning of what eventually led me to become a pacifist.”During that time, Paul still took many trips, in his own plane, back to his family in Oklahoma City. When he convinced Sally to marry him, the two held a very small ceremony in Oklahoma (Sally’s only bridesmaid was her dog, Seema).They decided to move there and begin a new life. Sally had been living and working in Boston, and was unsure that Oklahoma City was the right place for her. She had led the first Head Start program in Boston (imagine a petite white woman venturing into the highly segregated inner-city in the 1960s), and worked diligently with special needs children.But her abilities as a teacher and psychologist (gained in graduate school in Boston), were readily apparent to her new colleagues in Oklahoma.Although Sally had pursued a music major in undergraduate school, she developed nodes on her vocal chords which kept her away from singing and teaching music full-time.It was only after pursuing psychology and child development that others learned of Sally’s gift in the field.Peter Abuisi, now headmaster at Vail Mountain School, knew Sally both in Boston and Oklahoma City, where they worked together. He had this to say of her time as a professional in that field: “Sally Johnston had a rare capacity to engage the most reticent learner and a gift for enthralling children of every learning style and ability. She was a consummate professional and tireless. Every student felt appreciated by her and safe in her care.”After impressing the academics of Oklahoma City with her abilities, Sally began to feel at home. She had two young sons, John and Michael, when Paul suggested that the family move to Vail and buy a lodge. Paul was also interested in reuniting with his two children from another marriage: Paul Jr. and Michelle.Eventually Paul was surrounded by his children, his new wife, and a host of new friends in the small town of Vail, which was growing quickly in the 1970s. Their first winter living in the Lodge, Sally said, was quite an adventure.”I can remember waking up and looking out and being so scared,” she said, because there wasn’t any snow and they didn’t know if their rooms would fill.”It’s true,” added Paul, “snowfarming is not a good occupation.”But the couple was fortunate, and secret servicemen who were protecting President Gerald Ford filled their lodge even when the skiing wasn’t so good.The financial security of a full lodge allowed Paul and Sally to actualize their giving spirit, and they began their legacy of giving which helped inspire Vail’s well-known volunteer spirit.Sally’s friend, Sally Hanlon, had been in Boston and now lives in Vail with Sally, and has watched her give throughout her life.”Sally Johnston is the personification of the Golden Rule,” Sally Hanlon said. “Do unto others as you would have done to you is how she lives.”The power of loveWith Michelle and Paul Jr. nearby, Paul and his family were all united. But for Michelle and Paul Jr., their mother, Mitzie, was still far away.Michelle was 13 when Paul and Mitzie split, and she remembers those years as difficult and confusing. In time, however, Sally reached out to Mitzie and began bringing everyone together for Christmas.”Sally and my mom were, and are, very good friends,” said Michelle, who lives in the valley with her husband Brian Maloney. “Sally invites my mom to any holiday she can be at, weddings, anything from day one my mom has always been included by Sally.”Michelle has become so close with Sally that she refers to her as a second mother.”I feel fortunate to have two moms,” she said. “She’s done an amazing job of bringing our family together. It’s a testament to how secure she is, and how giving. I don’t know how many people would invite their husband’s ex-wife over to the house.”The root of this love, it is clear, comes largely from the couple’s deep Christian spirituality. Paul, as in most things, speaks very clearly about the healing power of Christ, and the guidance his religion has given him.Michelle notes that Paul’s faith guides him in his work as a hospice chaplain. Faith fuels, “His passion for peace, his passion for non-violence and for restoration,” she said.Paul and Sally were active in bringing Ecumenical to Vail, a religious congregation which gathers every October in town. Paul has a lifelong connection to faith healers, and has multiple stories which show the power of faith as a healing agent.Their son, John, is married now and studying at seminary in Los Angeles. Their son Michael, also married, has a book published, called “The Deep Heart’s Core,” about his experiences working for Teach For America. Michael is a school principal, just like his grandfather, and living in Denver.From their base at the Christiania, which began as a small lodge at the base of a small ski area, the Johnston’s have played a central role in the development of the town. Paul has largely gone publicly unrecognized for his work as mayor and councilman, spiritual leader and philanthropist, and Sally is well-known inside Vail Mountain School circles for her efforts with the school but is rather shy about revealing her accomplishments, even for this article.But, their friends and family say, both of them deserve all the credit in the world. VT– Tom Boyd can be reached at tboyd@vailtrail.com.


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