Obituary: S. Hartley Johnston / Leader at foundation of community college system

Jan. 1, 1932 - July 30, 2013

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S. Hartley Johnston, a music teacher who became the founding president of Westmoreland County Community College in 1970 and later academic dean at Community College of Allegheny County, died July 30 at a nursing home in Penn Hills. He was 81.

He was cremated, but a service will be held Saturday in Freeport followed by a burial in the Natrona Heights area of Harrison with military honors in tribute to his service in the Korean War.

Mr. Hartley, a Harrison native, had two main passions: music and education.

After teaching music in the public school system, he went on to build a career in the growing community college system in Western Pennsylvania in the 1960s and '70s and also helped start a technical college in North Carolina.

In his retirement years he played music locally, traveled regularly to China as part of a venture to promote East-West relations and championed local history as head of the Allegheny-Kiski Historical Society Heritage Museum in Tarentum.

"He had a sense of history and tradition," said his son, Keith Johnston, 45, of Bridgeport, Conn. "He was a big proponent of public education and a big proponent of the arts as well."

He was also pretty handy. During Korea, he was a technician on a destroyer, and in retirement he built his own sailboat for excursions at Prince Gallitzin State Park.

Mr. Johnston was the son of a construction contractor and grew up during the Depression. The family moved around the Allegheny Valley, briefly to California, then to Dormont when the construction business failed and finally to Cheswick.

When he was 10, Mr. Johnston lost his father during World War II, but not in combat. Samuel Johnston was working in Trinidad & Tobago in 1942, building an airstrip for the Allies, when he died in a car crash on the way home from the work site. Mr. Johnston and his older sisters were raised by their mother, Hazel.

After graduating from Springdale High School in 1949, Mr. Johnston enlisted in the Navy because he wanted to see the world. He served in combat in Korea as an electronics technician aboard the USS Wiltsie in support of U.N. ground operations.

After the war, he attended Indiana State Teachers College and earned his undergraduate degree in music. He later received a master's degree in education at Penn State and earned a doctorate in higher education and philosophy there in 1964.

He and his first wife, Patricia, had their first son, Eric, that year, and Keith was born five years later when the family was living in North Carolina.

Mr. Johnston started his education career teaching music in the public schools in Kane and Fox Chapel, where he started a stringed-instrument program. In 1967, he took a job as assistant to H.B. Monroe, the first president of Community College of Beaver County. He soon was elevated to dean of arts and sciences and later became dean of instruction.

After three years in Beaver County, he helped complete a feasibility study for Westmoreland County Community College and in 1970 became its first president, serving until 1974.

The college's first classes were held in rented trailers at Jeannette and Norwin high schools. In 1972, the college moved into the Westinghouse semiconductor plant in Hempfield, where classes were held while the building was being renovated.

After helping establish the school, he moved to North Carolina.

His friend, Mr. Monroe, had left Community College of Beaver County in 1968 to start a new school, Anson Technical College in Wadesboro, N.C., and recruited Mr. Johnston to help him get it off the ground. Mr. Johnston served as vice president and academic dean there from 1974 to 1982.

He enjoyed the work as the school grew, but Patricia was less than thrilled with the country life.

"It was a nice place to work, small and rural, but my first wife was a city girl," he recalled in 2003.

So the family moved back to Pittsburgh, with Mr. Johnston taking a job as academic dean of the North campus of CCAC in McCandless. His first wife died in 1991, and Mr. Johnston retired from the college in 1992.

A year later, he married Betty Ann Boswell Premick -- she also now is deceased -- his old girlfriend from his days at Springdale High. The couple built a house in Cheswick, and Mr. Johnston embarked on a new adventure, initially going into business with a relative selling plastic light fixture coverings manufactured in China.

He traveled there regularly and in time became involved in giving tours in China to American business people as part of an effort to encourage relations between China and the U.S.

In his spare time, he continued with his first love -- playing music. As a youth in 1946, he played bass in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, and during his school years he performed at polkas and dances to earn some spending money.

In later years he played brass instruments as well as guitar and banjo and performed in many amateur ensembles, including the Pittsburgh Civic Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Savoyards, a semi-professional group that puts on Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas. In the early 1980s, he was the founding president of the Allegheny Brass Band and played in it for more than 25 years.

Beyond music, he spent most of his days at the heritage museum in Tarentum. Elected to the board in 1994, he helped remodel the building, install new lights and catalogue the artifacts and exhibits. He sometimes put in 40 hours a week as a volunteer.

"I worked all my life," he said in 2003, when he was 71 and asked why didn't slow down a bit. "I like to work and I'll keep on working. I go like hell. I'm pretty active."

Mr. Johnston also is survived by another son, Eric, who lives in Japan, and three stepchildren: Jim Premick of Williamsport, Robert Premick of Pittsburgh and Patricia Premick, who lives in China.

A service will be held from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Redmond Funeral Home in Freeport, followed by burial at Mt. Airy Cemetery in Natrona Heights.

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