Brother Charles Barrett Johnston, CSC

July 14, 1924 – June 19, 2019

Brother Charles Barrett Johnston, CSCThe prayers of the members of the Congregation of Holy Cross are requested for the repose of the soul of Brother Charles Barrett Johnston, CSC, a member of the Moreau Province of Brothers and Priests. Born in Seattle, Washington, Br. Charles died in Austin, Texas, on June 19, 2019. He was in his 65th year of religious life in the Congregation.

Charles Barrett Johnston was born in Seattle, Washington, on July 14, 1924. His father Charles A. Johnston was a certified public accountant and his mother Sadie was a teacher. He has one younger brother. He was baptized at St. Joseph Church in Seattle and later confirmed at St. Francis Church in Winlock, Washington.

He graduated from St. Mary’s Academy Elementary in Winlock, Washington, and Seattle Preparatory High School in Seattle. He eventually went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in Chemistry from Seattle University in 1949. He took two years out of his studies to join the US Navy and served in the Pacific as an electronics technician. After the Navy he got some experience in forest management for the summers and also earned a minor in industrial arts education as part of his preparation for Washington State teacher certification.

In 1950 Charles began teaching at Valley High School in Menlo, Washington. He moved on to teach electricity and electronics in Everett, Washington in 1952. Along the way he made a retreat with the Benedictines at St. Martin’s Abbey in Olympia. This drew him to religious life. After visiting the Brothers at the University of Portland, he joined the Brothers of Holy Cross at Watertown, Wisconsin in September of 1953. He entered St. Joseph Novitiate in Rolling Prairie, Indiana on January 25, 1954 and made his first profession of vows there on January 26, 1955. He made his perpetual profession at Notre Dame, Indiana on August 16, 1958.

Brother Charles spent his ministerial career as a Brother split between his talent as a teacher of science and his interest in electronics and maintenance. He taught at St. Joseph High School in South Bend, Indiana; St. Anthony High School in Long Beach, California; Vincentian Institute in Albany, New York; St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California; and Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California. He spent his longest time at Notre Dame High School in Biloxi, Mississippi. In 1990 he was asked to be the local superior at St. Joseph Farm and he began a seven year stint there in Granger, Indiana. From there he spent thirteen years as a maintenance specialist at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California. In 2010 he moved to the Brother Vincent Pieau Residence in Austin, Texas.

Brother Charles has been remarkably strong and healthy throughout his life even though he fought some colon cancer more than twenty years ago. In the last few weeks he started suffering some difficulties in breathing and he began some physical decline and entered hospice care.

Brother Charles passed away early on the morning of June 19, 2019, at the Brother Vincent Pieau Residence in Austin, Texas.

Services for Br. Charles Johnston, CSC were held at the chapel of the Brother Vincent Pieau Residence, Austin, Texas on Saturday, June 22, 2019. The Memorial Prayer Service was held at 9:45 A.M. The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated at 10:30 A.M., followed by the Committal Service. Interment took place at Assumption Cemetery.

Br. Donald Blauvelt, CSC

He Did Not Trudge

Brother Charles Barrett Johnston, CSCStriding, head thrust forward, arms pumping, habit flapping around his legs and with a tool belt around his waist. That’s the image that first comes to mind when I think of Brother Charles Johnston. Definitely a man on a mission.

Charlie was my chemistry teacher at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, 54 years ago. Mike Spencer and Rich Kelly also were among his students. I remember his admonitions to our class – “You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin” and “Bad day at Black Rock” – but generally we were well behaved, we liked Charlie.

Our notebooks counted toward our grade, and to help concentrate our attention, he wrote on the blackboard with his right hand while erasing with his left.

He complained regularly about my handwriting. Finally he circled my indecipherable last name in red ink, and wrote “Grits?” Then he added, “For God’s sake, print!” I got to be pretty good at printing.

At the end of the year, he would not give us a grade until we settled accounts for lost or broken lab equipment. Mike Cowan, my lab partner, apparently not worried about his grade, failed to ante up his share of the expenses. So I paid exactly half, and I still have a receipt from Charlie for 12 ½ cents.

Amazingly, Charlie could fall asleep at his desk while reading to us from the text book. But we didn’t take the opportunity to fool around. As I said, we liked and respected Charlie, and we just figured that he was tired from all his work. We saw him not only in the classroom, but all over campus, always working. I can still picture him fixing the scoreboard on the football field.

Once when Charlie had fallen asleep at his desk, Brother Eagan, the principal, was walking by. He looked in and saw Charlie asleep and us working quietly. Eagan just nodded to us and kept going.

When I was a scholastic at St. Edward’s University, during the January break between semesters, we could be sent to a school to gain some practical experience in teaching. I was assigned to an eighth grade class at Notre Dame High School, Biloxi. All was going fine until a student raised his hand and asked to go the lavatory. To a rookie teacher, this sounded like a reasonable request, so I said, “Okay.”

A few minutes later, another student needed to be excused; then another, then another. In no time, my class was emptying into the hallway for a contagious bathroom emergency. I was at a complete loss for what to do. Would this catastrophe end my teaching career? But then here comes Charlie, the Dean of Students, herding them all back into my classroom and restoring order.

Brother Charles Barrett Johnston, CSCI often reminded Charlie that he was my teacher. He liked to know that. But somehow he couldn’t believe that he had done a good job or that his students loved him. Last week after reminding him that he was my teacher, I thought I would push a little further, and I added, “I was your favorite student.” He studied me for a while, and then he said, “You know, what I really enjoyed most was working on the farm.” Some years ago, Charlie wrote out a chronology of his life which he updated on an annual basis, adding more details. He shared about the difficult issues his family had to deal with, the havoc caused by his father’s illness, the near death of his brother, what it took to survive the Depression.

Life was confusing. There were things he didn’t understand, that people would not explain to him, or for which there were no answers.

He was sent home from first grade as a child who was unable to be educated, he was moved around to different relatives, he was hard to handle. But he did like oil rigs, big machinery, trains. It was his mother, an innovative teacher, who finally cracked the code, freeing him to read.

Charlie showed great self-determination. He worked as a roustabout in his uncle’s oilfields, as a bus boy in a department store, and as a topographer for the US Forestry Service. He was hired to help in the engineering department at Seattle University while doing coursework toward a degree in Chemistry. He returned to complete that degree after serving as an electronics technician in the Navy.

Then at the University of Washington, he added a minor in Industrial Arts and became certified to teach, inspired perhaps by his mother, and maybe also wanting to help others overcome challenges like those he himself had faced.

Catholic education had been a value for his family. The Church had been an anchor for Charlie throughout his life, and he developed close friendships with a number of priests.

He had been thinking of a religious vocation and after a retreat with the Benedictines helped him to further discern his calling, he contacted the Brothers of Holy Cross, offering what he considered to be his one talent, teaching.

With us he shared that talent and much more, because he had picked up a lot of skills along the way and was always disposed to help, tools at hand. He would reminisce that people at the farm were surprised that he “knew how to do stuff.” Charlie was good company, and he was always looking for a way to contribute.

Brother Charles Barrett Johnston, CSCHere in retirement, he took on a ministry of writing letters, checking the doors, and sorting the mail into our boxes. He’d be in place on the front porch in his blue uniform and work boots hours ahead of the delivery. And he developed a friendship with Ray our postman.

Charlie suffered some isolation due to his profound deafness. And eventually, instead of tools he carried around with him on his walker all his prayer books, wellworn and bound with red rubber bands. He spent a lot of time in chapel, sometimes asleep, but right here up front, resting in the Lord’s presence.

By his example as my teacher, he called me to walk in his company, to follow in his footsteps as a Brother of Holy Cross.

If Charlie was trudging in his last years, it was only because at almost 95 he could no longer stride. He had his boots on, with the shoelaces untied, but the spirit was still there, the desire to serve, to follow Jesus, to be close to God. He had the hope.

Thank you, Brother Charlie. May you rest in peace.

Eulogy by Brother Richard Critz, CSC, June 22, 2019
Brother Vincent Pieau Residence, Austin, TX

Closing Windows at Night

Brother Charles Barrett Johnston, CSCThe clock doesn’t work in room 300. The minute hand is forty seconds behind the school’s schedule and the second hand hovers every time it passes the nine. Mike Mitchell laughs because it is only fitting that the broken numbers are in a Math classroom. It hasn’t worked for four Novembers now. That’s when the brothers left for good for Austin. There are six replacement clocks in Brother Charles’ room upstairs. They are stacked neatly on his shelf, like china plates in an expensive restaurant. His tools are there too. He told me he wouldn’t need them in Austin, so he wanted to leave them “at home.” Brother Charles was a special man and he took care of the facilities at Saint Francis for many years. He was humble, gentle and hard working – and he operated, well, like clockwork. He would check that the windows were locked in the Activities Office every night at exactly 9:55 p.m. His nightly patrol around the 26 acres of our school was exact, precise and reassuring. I can still picture the shadow of his blue coveralls, black beanie and slow shuffle as he meticulously checked buildings at night, tugging on door handles and relatching unlatched classroom windows. I remember one clear night a few Septembers ago when he stopped by the Holy Family statue in the middle of the quad, gazed up at the night sky and nodded. I’m pretty sure he was praying and remembering . . .

One night a couple of years after World War II and before he joined the Brothers of Holy Cross, Charles was on a freighter in the middle of some black ocean. He only had six days left in his tour of duty. His commanding officer called him into his office and offered Charles a bonus if he reenlisted right there and then. The officer gave him ten minutes to think about it and instructed him to return to the office with his decision. Charles walked out on the deck of the ship. In a moment of uncertainty, he looked up to the sky, hoping to see a sign from God. Charles says that he didn’t see God, but rather, he saw that some idiot (Brother’s word) had covered the communication cables with black paint. Charles still shakes his head in disbelief when he explains that painting these cables had seriously jeopardized the boat’s ability to communicate with the outside world. Charles also shakes his head in disbelief when he explains that someone would be ordered to straddle himself to the cables, shimmy up forty feet and scrape all of the paint off the cables. Charles knew that the low man on the totem pole would be the one who had to do the job and he knew that even with his bonus and reenlistment, the totem pole was securely holding him down (Brother’s words).

Charles was given ten minutes to make the most important decision of his life up to that point. After less than three minutes, Charles knew his answer. A couple of weeks later, back home in Washington as an ex-sailor who was looking for a new beginning, Charles joined the Brothers of Holy Cross – and began his legacy of hard work, of prayer, and of closing windows at night.

Brother Charles hasn’t been outside his new home in Austin yet. It’s big and beautiful and he’s treated well, but most of the windows don’t open, so he doesn’t need to check them at night. During the days, instead of pushing his wheeled tool cart around the halls, checking fire extinguishers and fixing the lockers that don’t close quite right, he attends mass at 630 a.m., walks 2.5 miles on the treadmill, sits and reads in his well vacuumed room and after lunch, sneaks into big yellow chairs in the hallway to take a well-earned nap. Since Brother has left, we’ve hired two security guards to patrol the campus every night. They are good and reliable and they send extremely detailed security reports every morning. But somehow, our campus doesn’t feel quite as safe as before. . . . . . It’s well after 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday night and I’m locking up the cafeteria after the Spring Band Concert. The night is warm and smells like pink flowers. As I pass the statue of the Holy Family in the middle of the quad I think about how our Catholic faith uses people to define and demonstrate its values and beliefs. Brother Charles’ faith, service and humble approach to doing work that no one else wanted to do has been a pivotal and transformational journey in my own life – one that I have tried (and often failed) to emulate.

My car is the last one parked along the 200 building and I notice one of the classroom windows has been left slightly ajar. I know it is to the room of that one Spanish teacher who refuses to close her windows because “her job was to teach kids” and “not to worry about closing windows at night.” I am tired and want to get home and I know the security guards will be by in a few minutes and they will be able to record this violation on their report.

I tiptoe through the ivy bushes, smile and gently push the window shut.

by Simon Raines
Teacher/Administrator, St. Francis High School
June 2019

Brother Charles Barrett Johnston CSC served the Lord faithfully in the following ministries:

  • 1954-1955 Novice, St. Joseph Novitiate, Rolling Prairie, IN
  • 1955-1956 Teacher, St. Joseph HS, South Bend, IN
  • 1956-1956 Teacher, Vincentian Institute, Albany, NY
  • 1956-1958 Teacher, St. Anthony HS, Long Beach, CA
  • 1958-1966 Teacher, St. Francis HS, Mountain View, CA
  • 1966-1980 Teacher, Notre Dame HS, Biloxi, MS
  • 1980-1981 Facilities Manager, Notre Dame HS, Sherman Oaks, CA
  • 1981-1990 Teacher, Notre Dame/Mercy-Cross HS, Biloxi, MS
  • 1990-1996 Superior and Staff, St. Joseph Farm, Granger, IN
  • 1996-1997 Farm and Cattle Staff, St. Joseph Farm, Granger, IN
  • 1997-2010 Maintenance Specialist, St. Francis HS, Mountain View, IN
  • 2010-2019 In Residence, Brother Vincent Pieau Residence, Austin, TX

Brother Charles Barrett Johnston CSC