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WCCC founding president Johnston remembered as pioneer

| Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 1:26 a.m.
S. Hartley Johnston, 81, of Pittsburgh, passed away peacefully on  July 30th, at UPMC Seneca Manor in Verona.
S. Hartley Johnston, 81, of Pittsburgh, passed away peacefully on July 30th, at UPMC Seneca Manor in Verona.

Family and friends remember longtime educator and musician S. Hartley Johnston as someone who could accomplish anything he set his mind to.

“There were a number of things he set out to do, and he did them,” Johnston's youngest son, Keith, said of his father, who died July 30, 2013, at 81.

“He wanted to see the world, so he joined the Navy. He wanted to get his doctorate degree, so he got his doctorate degree from Penn State. He wanted to have a big impact in higher education, so he helped start Westmoreland Community College.”

A Tarentum native, Johnston was a 1949 graduate of Springdale High School. After graduating, Johnston joined the Navy, where he saw combat during the Korean War. When he returned home, he got his teaching degree from what was then Indiana State Teachers College in Indiana, Pa.

After earning his doctorate, Johnston became a pioneer for community colleges. He was the first president of Westmoreland County Community College. He served at the community colleges of Beaver and Butler counties and Anson Technical College in North Carolina.

He retired from the Community College of Allegheny County in 1992.

“As the founding president of Westmoreland County Community College, Dr. Johnston helped to build the college — from the writing of the proposal of the college, to selecting the programs that would serve the needs of local citizens, business and local government for years to come,” said WCCC President Daniel J. Obara. “He was a lifelong friend of WCCC.”

Johnston's oldest son, Eric, has lived in Japan for more than 20 years, something he said he may not have done if his father hadn't been such a go-getter.

“My dad spent some time in Japan while he was serving,” said Eric Johnston, who is a journalist for the Japan Times. “Back then, U.S. servicemen weren't supposed to go out on their own in Japan.

“But, my dad didn't listen to that — he did his own thing,” he said. “He went off on his own and explored Japan. My dad kind of developed an interest in Japan and Japanese folk ballads.”

Johnston wasn't just a fan of folk music from the Far East. A string bass and brass instrument player, Johnston was one of the first members of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony.

He played in many amateur music ensembles and in 1983 founded the Allegheny Brass Band.

“Music was a very big part of his life and ours as well,” said Keith Johnston, who is band director at Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Conn. “We were a musical and arts type of family.”

Both brothers agreed that their father was more than proud to be a son of the Alle-Kiski Valley. “He was very, very proud of his connection to the community, especially the A-K Valley,” Eric Johnston said. “He was the last of a dying breed; he straddled the old Pittsburgh and the new Pittsburgh that has emerged.”

One way Johnston chose to give back to his beloved Valley was to head the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society.

“We could go anywhere in the country and find a fort,” Keith Johnston said half-jokingly. “Because my dad was such a history buff, these things appeared out of nowhere.”

Historical society President Dolly Mistrik said Johnston acted as her mentor when she came to the society.

“He was just leaving, and I was just coming in,” she said. “He taught me the trade, so to speak. He shared his wisdom with me.”

Mistrik said Johnston was responsible for getting the historical society's Tarentum museum into working order.

“He meant a lot,” she said. “He started bringing the museum into shape. He started organizing the artifacts and getting them on display.

“He brought the museum to life.”

Cathy Wencel, who worked at the museum with Johnston for more than a decade, said she'll remember him for offering all of his guests a cup of green tea that his son Eric sent over from Japan.

“He was so funny,” she said. “I always told him he should write a book because of all the stories he had.

“He loved to quote the poet Robert Burns.”

Wencel said Johnston left many impressions on her, some less practical than others.

“One time, he told me about how he worked in a cigar factory,” she said. “ 'Til this day I can still pick out a good cigar. I don't even smoke.”

A service will be held on Saturday in Freeport with burial to follow in Harrison.

R.A. Monti is a freelance writer. The Valley News Dispatch will occasionally run obituary stories on notable local residents. They are news items and, as such, no charge is applied. The subjects of these stories are solely at the discretion of the editors.

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