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June 23, 2016

Obituary: William (Bill) M. Johnston

obit.Bill Johnston portraitWilliam (Bill) M. Johnston, whose 34-year career on the University staff concluded as assistant manager for University event support with the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE), died on May 14, 2016. He had retired from Pitt on May 16, 2015, less than a year after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Johnston was born on May 19, 1953, in Pittsburgh, graduating from Springdale High School in 1971, then earning an associate’s degree in visual communications from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1974.

He joined Pitt in 1976 as a graphic artist for the communications center on the ground floor of Hillman Library, which the next year merged with the medical photography department to form the University Center for Instructional Resources (UCIR), the forerunner of CIDDE. Johnston became the coordinator of UCIR’s graphic services department in 1978, leaving for a similar position with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in 1980, where he managed a six-person staff.

In 1985, he became Carnegie Mellon University’s director of printing services, then rejoined Pitt in 1986.

As CIDDE reorganized through the years, Johnston served as manager of electronic graphics and design as well as manager for rich media productions (supporting the production of videos for instruction), before reaching his ultimate position.

His CIDDE colleague Blaine Walker, a friend since middle school, recalls Johnston as “a versatile artist who effortlessly made the transition from traditional cut-and-paste artwork to the digital age of computer-based graphic design. ‘We worked as graphic artists when it involved knives, blood and chemicals,’” Walker recalls Johnston often saying.

Johnston created the original digital version of the University seal, which only recently was revamped, and designed and created the original version of the University campus map, which still is in use online.

Johnston also designed and created three-dimensional displays for Pitt’s bicentennial in 1987, including one on the history of women at Pitt that he later converted into an early Pitt website, which is still available (

“He was always a consummate professional,” Walker recalls. “He was always dedicated to doing the best job and providing the best job to the University’s clients.”

Bill and Rebecca Johnston were married in 1984.

“He was very proud of his work that he did at Pitt,” she says. “He especially enjoyed the time he worked in the design area, making various displays. He loved that sort of work. He was very mechanically inclined.

“Just figuring out the nuts and bolts of things — he worked very hard in that area,” she says. “There was nothing he couldn’t do.”

Johnston became lifelong friends with Walker and with Barry Wareham, a retired teacher now in Gettysburg, when all three joined the Air Force cadet organization, the Civil Air Patrol, in middle school. It kindled their love of vintage and modern aircraft, which took them, during Johnston’s last year, to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museums and the Reading Air Show.

However, Wareham says, “the main tie that bound was cars — we are all car geeks. One of Bill’s last pleasures was his Porsche Boxster. Every time he got in it he would grin from ear to ear.” Before his illness affected him too badly, the Johnstons’ church, Wallace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Green Tree, sent Bill Johnston to Porsche driver’s school.

Visiting Johnston meant ending up in the garage, Wareham says. “There aren’t that many shade-tree mechanics left,” he marvels, “and this was just for fun.”

Johnston displayed this mechanical aptitude early on. Wareham recalls Johnston years ago painting the eyeballs onto a conductor on a tiny HO-scale train with a single-haired brush and a jeweler’s loupe.

“At one point at a low ebb in my undergraduate schooling, I said, you know what, I’m going to go over and take a test at the [military] recruiter and see what the military has to say,” Wareham recalls. Johnston and Walker tagged along to try the test as well. Wareham remembers the recruiter approaching the three of them afterwards and making a beeline to Johnston, saying: “‘I’ve never seen a score like this. I could put you directly into school to be a nuke tech on a carrier.’”

“Because he was a year older and the first one to drive and the first one to graduate, we always looked at him as an older brother,” Wareham says. “There are a lot of things I would never have done if he hadn’t been there and had the grasp of things and the guts to say, ‘Let’s do that.’”

The three friends enjoyed many trips to watch Formula One racing, including journeys to Daytona International Speedway, the Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course and Watkins Glen in New York. Walker recalls Johnston’s love for sports cars: MGBs, Triumphs and Fiat 124 Spiders, particularly convertibles. The friends made cross-country trips to the Grand Canyon and up the Pacific Coast Highway, as well as down to Florida for the launch of Apollo 15 to the moon.

Johnston also taught himself to sail and bought himself and Wareham small sailboats; he even worked briefly on a schooner, just for the experience, and bought a 1954 Cayuga Capri 15-foot wooden outboard to restore it.

“The guy was absolutely fearless,” Walker says. “He would take absolutely anything apart with the confidence that he could put it back together.”

“If he didn’t know how to do it, he researched it and did it,” says Rebecca Johnston; that included extensive home remodeling.

He also took care of as many as 10 sidewalks in the winter for elderly neighbors, she recalls. “Fortunately, he didn’t suffer some of the later symptoms” of his illness, she adds. Even when ALS affected him, she says, “he never became discouraged or complained.”

The couple in recent years has taken part in the Johnstown Walk to Defeat ALS, which is supported by Pitt-Johnstown. Rebecca is hoping to raise $10,000 for her walk group, Team Ice Bucket Wife, for this year’s walk. She also intends to remain involved in PALS (People Living with ALS), which supplies people with wheelchairs and other medical devices.

A memorial service for Johnston likely will be held in September, she says.

In addition to his wife, Johnston is survived by his sisters Beth Moser (and her husband Bill) and Pam Johnston, sisters-in-law Susan Tucker (and her husband Keith) and Linda Clawson, as well as nieces and nephews.

—Marty Levine 

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