Lifelong friend. Classmate. High school star athlete. Hunter. Golfer.
Each of these words described Gene Johnston, a fellow member of the Class of 1989 at Piedmont Academy down the road in Monticello.
Son. Brother. Father. Uncle. Those words probably describe him better. He accomplished a great deal in his 50-plus years but his family accomplishments are those he was most proud. No doubt they should have been.
Husband to Katie and father to Morgan, Mackensie and Maggie, I don’t think I ever recall anyone saying a negative word about Gene. How could they? There wasn’t anything negative about him.
My small hometown is like many small hometowns across the country. We know most everyone. A friendship is a friendship for life. It’s what makes situations like this even tougher.
The heartache of Gene’s family is shared today by our whole hometown. They are hurting, so we are hurting.
Gene and I were technically related but I also viewed him as a good friend. The family ties just made that bond of friendship even stronger.
From the time we were young kids, Gene and I shared many interests. From recreation sports to fishing and hunting, Gene and I always seemed to find a common link. I remember us searching the vast network of satellite dish channels to find professional wrestling pay-per-views. We did the same for big boxing events, which typically featured Mike Tyson in those days.
Gene was popular with everyone. It’s why I often took the chance to let it be known we were related. Perhaps, just perhaps, some of his popularity would spill over to me.
As our high school days drew to a close, neither of us was exactly eager for them to be over. Our small class had a family cookout the night before our graduation. After eating we went to have a walk-through for the following night’s event.
By chance, Gene and I were slated to sit next to each other on the stage in our school gym for graduation. As we hoped against hope our high school days would somehow not end, Gene said, “It will never be the same again after tomorrow.”
In some ways he was right. In other ways, that night signaled the start of better things. Gene accomplished a great deal in his five decades and I always admired him for those accomplishments. He had many talents but he never took himself too seriously.
As we got older our friendship circles grew but we continued to have that bond. I knew he was there for me when I needed him and there was an incident that he always wanted to me share.
“Write about it,” he often told me with that ever-present smile on his face. For whatever reason, I never did, until now.
It was the fall of 1989. We had only graduated high school a few months earlier. One Friday night we were in the parking lot of the other school in our hometown. The only thing was I didn’t know he was there, but as it turned out, I was certainly glad he was.
We were both waiting on our girlfriends to take them home following a football game. As the waiting progressed, three current high school students saw me and began walking toward me.
I was young and certainly was known to let my mouth write a check that my rear probably couldn’t cash. I was a pro wrestling fan, afterall. As the three approached it seemed they didn’t like me being on their school’s turf. It’s so silly and absurd in looking back on it. But being young and dumb, I’m sure I said something in response as they demanded to know what I was doing there.
As flashes from the movie “The Outsiders” went through my mind, I knew I was about to be on the losing end of an altercation. Suddenly, a voice broke through the darkness.
“You don’t think I’m going to let this be a 3-on-1 deal,” Gene said as he calmly walked up and stood by my side. The three so-called tough guys realized, rightfully so, that Gene could have handled all three of them without whatever help I might have offered during the situation. They knew it. I knew it. He knew it.
Gene was the type of football player you would describe with one word: “tough.” In basketball, he took the approach on the court of the Detroit Pistons “Bad Boys” of that era. He always seemed to have the ability to drive a baseball over the outfield fence.
The fearsome threesome thought better of the turned odds and retreated, their tales between their legs knowing they had been scared off even though they still held the numerical advantage.
“Those were the Three Stooges if I have ever seen them,” he said smiling like he always did. I laughed as I was now able to breathe again.
Gene saved me that night. Through the years we would remember that incident. It got easier to laugh about as the years went by. In the heat of the moment, it wasn’t quite as funny.
Now Gene is gone, the second from our small high school class to leave us way too soon. I’ll miss my friend, my family member, my classmate, just like our entire hometown will. I knew he always had my back whenever I needed it. It didn’t matter if we were kids, teenagers, young adults or aging adults now in our 50s.
I’ll miss you buddy. Here’s to those good times growing up in small town America.
Chris Bridges is sports editor for The Walton Tribune.