In Memoriam — Bruce Johnson

It never gets easy to say good-bye, especially to a friend you’ve known for probably forty-five years. Last night, at about 7:45 p.m. Bruce passed away, He was in hospice care at the Penticton Regional Hospital’s Moog & Friends Centre. He was well cared for and he was surrounded by family. All this is not that unusual perhaps; except that Bruce had been battling pancreatic cancer — for three years, And up until the past month, Bruce never missed beat. Certainly not a beat that any of us had noticed. He was the most optimistic guy I’ve ever known. From the day he was diagnosed till the beginning of this month, all I ever knew was that he was going to beat it. And for my money, he did. Three years of dedicated living as a father, grand-father, husband, friend, school board member, community leader, skier, golfer, you-name-it…

Bruce was more than likable, he was a joy to be around. He always had funny stories to relate or interesting interpretations of news events or intriguing assessments of what the community really needed. As a school board member, he was always all about the kids, their needs and their opportunities for success. He went to almost every student-produced event that high school kids put on, whether musicals or basketball games or whatever. He would be there. And work the room, Andrew Scheer or Justin Trudeau could take a lesson from him — in large part because Bruce was genuine. Go with him to an event and it took forever to get to your seat and afterwards you could read a book waiting for him to get out of the place and into the car. Even last month when the two of us attended a fund-raising breakfast for Ecole Entre Lac, it took him half-an-hour after we finished eating just to get to the maple sugar/toffee activity outdoors. Another fifteen minutes to actually then get to the car (which was part of the reason for going to the event in the first place — he wanted to show off his new Nissan Rogue which is a black beauty by the way).

But there is much more to Bruce than his very determined three year battle — wherein he kept golfing at a high level (well he always beat me, but then my other golfing friend, Bill might not think that was any real achievement!!), skied voraciously (until a fall this January due to a snow snake grabbing his ski on an otherwise good run that had too little groomed snow), walked and did a variety of other physical and social activities.

I met Bruce on a golf course in 1974. It was some kind of tournament at the Penticton Golf Club and I was only in the tourney because the aforementioned Bill (who I had met through the ski instructor who taught me to ski at the age of 28 and thought I should also play golf in his three-some) felt I needed to get more involved in the Club. I was put on Bruce’s team and when I met him I realized he was not an ordinary golfer. He was way taller than I was, he was built like a football player (which, it turned out, he had been in college) and he was friendly (although there turned out to be a very competitive streak beneath the surface). I didn’t do much to help the team until the last hole on the first day; but Bruce didn’t seem to mind. The second day I actually contributed a bit more until the last hole — and he needed me to sink a reasonably lengthy putt. I didn’t and we came in second. All he could say was: Well I couldn’t have made it either, and we still made money so let’s go have a beer!! We were friends from then on…

Bruce (and the aforementioned Bill) also conspired to get me to teach for a few months in Penticton between major consulting gigs. I won’t go into the details but needless to say they were very assuring that it would be an easy task even though it was Junior High, and even though I would be teaching Math & English (not my limited teaching majors). Besides, Bruce said he would be teaching these kids Social Studies. It was only after I had signed, that the Assistant Superintendent explained just why no one on the teaching staff wanted to teach these kids M&E. But it was an interesting year and often on Monday evenings after school, Bruce and I would jump in my Corvette and go down to the OK Corral (the bar in Okanagan Falls) and discuss ideas for surviving another week. He always had great suggestions, including one to award a couple of these “sweat hogs” an evening of skiing at Last Mountain. That turned out to be a real hoot and very popular with these kids who had seldom won anything in their lives. But that was Bruce — how do we give kids that special moment to try to get to better?

After that gig, and when I was back in my consulting role, Bruce joined me on a part-time basis to help develop a major curriculum project Salmonids in the Classroom for the Salmonid Enhancement Program (a major federal-provincial fisheries improvement project on the west coast and the three major salmonid rivers). Again, his contributions were significant as he would always remind my team: make sure there are activities for the regular kids, don’t just design it for the super-bright or the super-enthused. The final product is still in use today and when a school I was developing in the nineties decided to get into salmonid enhancement, many of Bruce’s activities and lessons were the ones the teachers found most relevant for the kids.

Over the ensuing years I moved all over the place, but Bruce always stayed in touch and when I’d come back to the Valley to ski or golf we would try to get in a day if we could. But it was when I started coming back regularly in this new millennium that we once again re-connected in a more continuous way. He had retired from a very successful career in education, culminating in several principalships. His skiing was now central to his winter and golfing was a big part of his summers (the only two seasons we have in the Valley most of the time). So we would do both. But Bruce was always about good health and he wasn’t sure (along with the aforementioned Bill) that I was as healthy as I should be. So he suggested that we should go biking a couple of times a week from April through to November. And so we did: up to the Little Tunnel on the KVR, or down to Bunbury Green along Skaha Lake, or a lengthy route around the City of Penticton and the airport. Slowly I began to get better at it and slowly Bruce got through to me the importance of regular exercise again. He even took time one morning to show me a routine that I should do with 5 or 10lbs weights. A week later he asked me how it was going — I had to admit I had not started. So he showed me the routine again and told me where I could buy the weights. By the second week, I was doing the routine. (Sidebar: this week while visiting my Grandkids in AZ, every other morning I went through the routine, as the boys have a set of 10-lb weights for me here!! My body thanks you Bruce for your persistence!!)

There are many other things I could say about Bruce. His organization of cabin lunches during the ski season. His willingness to occasionally ride up the hill with me when the aforementioned Bill was unable to drive (Bruce also claimed that riding with me prevented him from reading the Penticton Herald, but that is a story for another day!!). His invites to go to the Cannery Brewing Company to test out what they might be brewing this week. His general knowledge of the community which he’d share when I was looking for help on  project. His eagerness to drive in for a weekend in Vancouver that would include both a visit with his sister &/or daughter and the chance to go to a BC Lions football game. Bruce was in a way the redefinition of Renaissance Manbecause he made everyone else around him better and more diverse in our outlooks.

But maybe the best compliment I can give isn’t even mine: it was given by Suzanne shortly after she met Bruce in 2007 on the ski hill. He’s such a gentle giant!  And that folks is what this world lost last night at 7:45 — a gentle giant!!