Longtime employee named as new head
By Jeff Green
Christine Burke, Dr. Brian Johnston, Dr. Johnston’s wife Mary, and Dr. Lilly Walker. (Photo by Chris Hammond)
A well-known and admired face on Memorial’s St. John’s campus has officially retired after more than three decades of service and several accolades. Dr. Brian Johnston stepped down as director of Housing, Food and Conference Services Oct. 5; he was with that unit for the past 25 years. Dr. Johnston first came to Memorial as a student in 1966 and became an employee in 1972. Christine Burke, the former assistant director of Housing, Food and Conference Services, has taken over as the new director.
“My time at Memorial dates back to the ’60s when I came as an undergraduate. I was very active in student politics. I was also involved with student affairs through Dr. Douglas Eaton who was the then dean of Student Affairs and Services,” said Dr. Johnston, who was initially hired to work as a high school liaison with various schools on the Avalon Peninsula. “We had teams of students who went out in the spring of the year to go and talk to students. It was a great chance to increase awareness and get them thinking about the university. Half of my time was doing that for the Avalon and the other half was as a general assistant to Dr. Eaton in his office.”
Dr. Johnston eventually moved into Memorial’s housing unit in 1980. He said one of the biggest changes he helped implement was a residence life program to make living away from home much more bearable for students. He said Memorial’s residences were similar to “apartment buildings” with hardly any support system in place for students. “It was a boarding house-type place. We gave students food and a place to stay but we didn’t have much programming,” he explained. “We very quickly developed my motto, which is still used, that residence is more than just housing. And that’s what I tried to promote.”
Over the years, Dr. Johnston helped steer his department to several top honours. Two years ago, Housing, Food and Conference Services ranked amongst the very best in an international survey of 233 institutions, with a ranking in the top 10 per cent on six of the 15 analysis factors.
He said the recognition was possible because of his department’s commitment to make Memorial’s residences “a great place to live.”
Dr. Johnston has also been awarded with several prestigious personal awards, including the 2005 Atlantic Association of College and University Student Services Award for Merit, along with the Award of Honour by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services and the 2004 Gord Mann award from the Canadian College and University Food Services Association. All three awards are the groups’ highest honours.
“It has been very gratifying that I’ve been able to have an impact on some of the students and some of the people who have been here and that I’ve been acknowledged for Memorial’s contribution,” Dr. Johnston said.
Despite the awards the university’s residences have received, Dr. Johnston realizes his successor will have her hands full in trying to meet student’s demand for more adequate housing.
For her part, Ms Burke said she is excited about the new challenges she is facing but admitted that her “mentor” did pass on a few words of advice. “Our buildings are over 40 years old and need to be overhauled and refurbished. In addition, with the change in the demographics of the students entering Memorial we have a higher demand for on-campus accommodations,” she said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Johnston said he’s still not sure what retirement will mean for him just yet. He plans to do some “short term” work with Student Affairs and Services to help mentor “young professionals as they move into management and responsible levels.” Aside from that, he is just “re-evaluating what to do.
“The reality is there will definitely be things I’ll miss,” he said with a wide smile. “The contact with students, which was my joy, that’s what kept me young. I’ll miss the camaraderie and the excitement and the challenges my staff and I faced over the years. But, I won’t miss the three o’clock in the morning phone calls!”