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Lessons from my Uncle Joe

A couple months ago my uncle passed away from a sudden heart attack. Regrettably, I hadn’t seen him or talked to him since Christmas last year. Not surprisingly, his death hit the entire Johnston family incredibly hard.

As soon as I heard the news, I started thinking of what a wonderful uncle he had been. Memories I hadn’t thought about in a long time came flooding back.  I began to reflect on how much he, and the entire Johnston family, helped shape me as an adult; much more of an influence than I had realized.  The following are some of my memories and lessons I learned from my Uncle Joe.

When I was in my teens, my cousin had a small dirt bike, and Joe let my brother and I give it a try. It was the first time I’d ever been on a motorcycle. On my first go, I rode it around his yard in small circles. After I got the hang of the basics, I did a lap around the backyard; all by  myself. During that lap I dumped the bike and tore up his backyard by trying to pull the bike up while continuing to hold down the throttle (rookie mistake). The bike did a couple spins in the yard with me running next to it, tearing up the grass and leaving a big circular patch of dirt. The patience and kindness Joe showed me after I came back around to the front yard (with clumps of dirt and grass littered on the handlebars of the bike and embarrassment on my face) was something I always kept with me. I expected him to be upset about potentially damaging the bike and messing up his yard. He just teased me a bit (in typical Joe fashion), but was ultimately concerned that I hadn’t been hurt.  Still, I haven’t been fond of motorbikes since.

In the summer before my first semester at college, he asked me how I felt about going away to school in the next few weeks. I told him I was both nervous and excited for the experience. I joked around about partying and how cool it was going to be to room with my best friend. He told me to have fun and be safe. He also told me not to hesitate to call him if I got into any trouble at school that I couldn’t tell my parents about.  I didn’t, by the way, as far as the law, and my parents, are concerned. He told me that he loved me and that he was very proud of me for deciding to go to college.  I never had to call him, but to know he had my back in such a major way, to know he was thinking about me all the time, was something that made me feel safe and secure, something that stuck with me for four years.  It wasn’t so frightening to be away when I knew I was a part of something so strong back at home.

Joe knew I was in the computer science field and the last time I saw him, he joked that I was part of the latest Anonymous hack that was covered in the news. Little did he know; I’ve never been that clever.  But leave it to Joe to find commonalities and ties with me and current events.  Showing me that he was thinking about me even while reading the news.

He taught me how to be a big brother. Watching him interact with my dad was something truly special. They were always wrestling in the pool, teasing, telling stories about their youth, and they always ended up laughing uncontrollably together about one thing or another.  One never hesitated to come to help the other and their bond was unmistakable.

I mostly remember his kindness and generosity. He, and the rest of the Johnstons, taught me about the importance of family. He and Aunt Debbie always extended an open invitation to their home for their famous pool parties on summer weekends. We also spent countless holidays and vacations together at Lake Warren and Camden park. Always banded together as one unit if anyone tried to mess with us.  It never mattered how much time passed between visits or get togethers, Joe made everyone welcome all the time.

He was always helping someone in the family when they needed it the most. In fact, on the day he had a heart attack, he was mowing his mother-in-law’s lawn over Mother’s Day weekend. His last act was spent helping someone.  This was his everyday. Helping, working, supporting, laughing…  It was his everyday, because it was him.

In addition to his generous heart, he had a generous sense of humor.  He showed his love by teasing you about something, about anything. He often referred to me lovingly as “Twilight” (a reference to a popular teen vampire book/movie series) because I am much fairer skinned than my other cousins and aunts. If he didn’t tease you or give you shit, then he didn’t respect you. If you were ever offended by his teasing, you didn’t know Joe.  You didn’t know that his razzing brought you closer into the circle.  The Johnston Circle of Trust.  And once Joe let you into that, you were in for life.  That was one of many ways he showed love to his family and friends.

I hope that someday I can be half as good of a family man as my uncle Joe was.  Between Joe and my dad, I think I have two of the best role models for being a father, a husband, a friend, and a man.  I count myself exceptionally lucky.

I love you Joe, we miss you every day.


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  1. thank you cuz ryan all so true about my dad. he was a great dad and friend. my sister n brother could talk to him about anything thanks again.