Robert Winship Johnston



Gouldsboro Point

Keep a fire burning in your eye

Pay attention to the open sky

You never know what will be coming down…

Into a dancer you have grown

From a seed somebody else has thrown

Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own

And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go

May lie a reason you were alive, but you’ll never know

  • Jackson Browne

Robert Winship Johnston dodged enough bullets, worked enough jobs, had enough wives, and pissed off enough people to have lived more than one full life. The self-proclaimed hermit of Gouldsboro Point has moved on. He was born on January 24, 1941, and after having a “good run,” departed from Maine Medical Center on Aug. 11.

In Bob’s family, public service was a tradition. Though visitors willing to roll the dice and earn a parking ticket may not have felt so “served” by Bob’s dad, Police Officer Jim “Smiley” Johnston, when walking his York Beach beat. Still grumbling, they paid their fine to Rena, Jim’s wife, at the York Police Station. She promptly snatched the check with a half a grin as they headed for the door.

Bob was difficult to ignore as he pursued his own path. When he was on the York Beach Board of Selectmen, at town meeting or at the Lobster Barn over a “beah,” it was painfully clear where he stood and why. Discretion was not liberally exercised. But, agree or not, if you actually listened he did make you think. A lifetime member of the York Beach Fire Department, Bob once gave a friend a tour of the town, pointing out several vacant lots or cellar remains from past structure fires. The tour abruptly ended when the guest hesitantly inquired if they’d ever actually saved a building. That said, in the old days of YBFD, Bob worked with and for some of York’s most esteemed citizens – a few of whom he often said exemplified leadership.

Bob graduated from York High with the infamous class of ’58. A UMO English major, he did his best to educate youth and adults in Southwest Harbor, Maine; Winnacunnet High in N.H.; NH vocational tech college and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard apprentice program. Somewhere in there he also did a gig as a newspaper reporter. Bob also crewed on a deep-sea fishing party boat from the Blue Hill Peninsula. He quickly seized opportunities to capture the moments when drunken tourists heaved up their lunch in rough water with the client’s own camera (giving them a real nice memory of Downeast when their photos were developed).

Bob would become the Shipyard’s first public affairs officer with a staff of two, supporting VIP and Congressional visits while also getting out the shipyard publication, the Periscope. His drive for Navy community engagement helped propel visits from multiple tall ships, a Canadian destroyer, and a British submarine, as well as bringing home the USS Albacore. He helped facilitate the development of the publication “Cradle of American Shipbuilding,” which was shared with shipyard families, municipalities, libraries and schools. Bob’s last stretch of civil service, ending in the position of educational services officer, was with the officers, enlisted and civilians of NSGA Winter Harbor, where he developed relationships lasting well beyond its closure in 2002.

Fiercely loyal to friends, Bob expected the same from them. Some became accustomed to periods of silence sparked by a disagreement that spun out of control. He did not shy away from calling out someone who was self-serving or disingenuous but failed to see that subsequent never-ending critiques had the potential to draw unintended sympathy to the subject. During a Gouldsboro town meeting, a woman (a Massachusetts transplant) took exception to Bob’s exhaustingly impassioned comments and yelled “why don’t you go back to where you came from?” He replied, “I can’t – they paid too much money to move me here.”

Bob had little tolerance for opposing views built on a lack of ambition or will to be informed of the facts. In all his 81 years no one ever heard Bob make the presumption that he or someone else was “blessed.” Many, many other words may have been used, but never “blessed.” He loathed the use of religion as a badge or to dictate what others may do but admired people who quietly went about their days trying to make life better for those beyond their own family. Although Bob was in the Air Force, he rarely actively called out his veteran’s status (well, a free Subway on Veteran’s Day was too good to pass up). He said his service stateside and overseas didn’t compare to someone who engaged in direct conflict or committed more than 20 years to serving their country. While he flew his American flag, he did not wear it.

Bob’s house was stuffed with friends for his pre-Thanksgiving and Winter Solstice celebrations. The events only grew in proportion after moving to Gouldsboro in the ’80s. You were immediately embraced with the scent of garlic and rosemary when entering. Martinis were always being served, and it was expected that the meal would be at least an hour late as Bob was far more engaged in being the center of attention than with food preparation.

Jackie was hoping three was a lucky number, so she married Bob in the front yard 30 years ago on the edge of Gouldsboro Bay on a cold, rainy and wicked foggy Fourth of July. As the seasons changed, there was great anticipation for Bob’s emails on life and nature in coastal Maine and New England with quotes from Robert Peter Tristram Coffin, Hal Borland and Philip Booth. And there was music — always loud. Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Springsteen. If you ever saw him stomping around, fists raised as though drumming, or in his mind — dancing, it was something you could never “unsee.”

Bob had a phobia of clear horizontal spaces as there were none to be found in the house. Every inch covered with newspapers, New Yorker magazines, and books, books, books. Every chair harbored reading glasses somewhere within the pillows, some broken or twisted, others about to be. Guess that’s why he always had something to say, or maybe he just liked talking. Either way, Bob conveyed an energy whenever he entered a space – or when he exited. On the day the hermit left, the U.S. Geological Survey reported a series of five small earthquakes, with the center just 20 miles northeast of Gouldsboro. Perfect.

Bob had the chance to enjoy extra Maine seasons and venture across country and abroad because of the fine medical care received at Lahey Clinic over the last 20 years partnered with attentive local physicians. We were told some took on his case because fellow doctors promised he’d make them laugh. He did not disappoint. Adding to Bob’s quality of life were friends and neighbors up and down the Maine coast, as well as the string of boxer dogs and Siamese or Bengal cats rarely far from his side. Whether or not Jackie added or subtracted from his time, she does think she was sort of lucky to be No. 3.

He annoyed, informed, horrified, amused, angered, and influenced – floating into and out of our lives. And, in some instances, slightly or even significantly changing our trajectory.

We will gather at the York Beach Fire Department hall on Oct. 20 from 4 to 6 p.m., where there will be photos, videos, and the sharing of personal memories. There will also be a dedication to Bob on Gouldsboro Point in late spring. Given how Bob received as well as he gave, be forewarned that the story telling may not be advisable for the faint of heart.

Memorial contributions may be made to the York Beach Fire Dept. or the Gouldsboro Fire Dept.

Lucas & Eaton Funeral Home in York, Maine will be handling the arrangements. Visit lucaseatonfuneralhome.com.

 


Know when to pay your respects.