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Island profile: Maureen Johnston
People who married into the true-blue harelegger Johnston family called themselves “the outlaws,” according to Maureen Johnston, 72, the long-time secretary who is — after Father Peter DeSanctis — the face and voice of Our Lady of the Isle Roman Catholic Church.
She is an East End blue blood herself, a Raynor of Greenport, but it can be hard to break into a proud Shelter Island tribe, no matter how deep your own roots on the north side.
Maureen fondly remembers the day when family members waved her up to pose with the crowd for a photo. A blood Johnston next to her put her arm across her back and whispered, “You’re in.”
It did not always go that smoothly for Maureen, who married Bill “Scratchy” Johnston, the earthmoving man who could make a bulldozer perform like a ballet dancer, in 1980. It was the second marriage for both.
“I want to tell you something,” Billy’s sister, the indomitable Isabelle Bowditch told Maureen, when the family came trooping over for cake after the small ceremony by the fireplace at Billy’s house. “As long as you’re his girl, you’re our girl. When you’re not his girl, you’re not our girl.”
Isabelle could be tough. She refused to give Maureen another transplant from her garden for the rest of her life because Maureen — as she had warned Isabelle — had been too busy dealing with her uncle’s funeral to get some of Isabelle’s plants into the ground before they died.
No matter. Maureen remained Billy’s girl for more than a quarter century until his death after a long decline in 2011.
She helped him set up and run his own excavating business, worked part-time herself, took care of the animals they both enjoyed (rabbits, chickens, goats, cats and dogs), and raised her three boys from her first marriage. His two boys were grown by then.
It was Isabelle who brought Billy and Maureen together — sort of.
Maureen had come back to Greenport from a trying life in North Carolina with her first husband, a Grumman Aerospace customer rep, an A6 Intruder expert linked to the Navy, and was working at Preston’s. Isabelle “was over there for one reason or another one day,” Maureen recalled, “and I was out pumping gas for Lydia King who was from Shelter Island, I can’t remember her maiden name but she married Charlie King … anyway, I was out pumping gas for Lydia and she, Isabelle, saw me there.”
Billy later told Maureen that Isabelle had come home and said, “I found the girl for you. She knows how to pump gas and she’s got two little boys.”
“He stayed away from me because he didn’t take advice from his sister,” Maureen said. But “he never cashed his paychecks,” and so as part of her bookkeeping work for Preston’s — which had bought Isabelle and Hap Bowditch’s Shelter Island Contracting Co., for which Billy worked then — she had to call Billy a lot and tell him to deposit those checks.
“One day I was downstairs” at Preston’s “and he was out changing a tire and he said to me, ‘The guys bet me you wouldn’t go out with me.’” He was soon able to tell the guys, “Well, you lost.”
After some dates, he came over to her place in Greenport and found her twins playing with toy trucks on the floor. “If I had known about all this stuff I would have been here sooner,” he told her.
“My husband was one of most generous people on the planet,” Maureen said, noting there are plaques for him at the ProjectFIT Center and the Mashomack Preserve for the bulldozer site work he did for free. He bought jackets for school basketball players who could not afford them and uniforms for the track team. He had fuel delivered to neighbor’s tanks when they couldn’t afford to buy it.
“What we had, we shared,” Maureen said — which is why she’s “still working,” she added, but that’s something she doesn’t mind because she likes to stay busy. “My father used to say, ‘When you don’t have something to do, you’re done.’”
Her father Samuel was the son of a commercial fisherman and went to work in the shipyard in Greenport when his own fishing career fizzled. Maureen’s mother Mary’s family, the Styks, had emigrated from Russia and eventually settled in Orient. Her parents died within about a year of each other in 1996-1997 along with her father’s childless sister.
Maureen had taken care of them all. “I had my hands full. I would never have survived it if I hadn’t had my parish family” at Our Lady of the Island, she said.
As a kid, Maureen worked every summer waitressing from age 14 on and graduated from Greenport School in 1959. She was one of four girls there who took business-skills courses and she could type 120 words a minute. “I wanted to be the girl in the gray flannel suit,” she said.
Hoping for a job on Madison Avenue one day, she went to SUNY at Farmingdale for its advertising art and design program but couldn’t afford to stick with it. Luckily, New York University “came calling,” asking if anyone in her program would come work for the university in exchange for free tuition.
That’s how Maureen came to spend time living in Greenwich Village. But “my father got sick and my mother called me. So I came home to put him in hospital.”
“I took a lot of responsibility for these people,” she said of her mother’s and father’s extended families. “Every time somebody needed a letter written or something done, they called.”
Her generosity and helpfulness goes beyond family. “Its so nice,” a friend told her once, “that when something’s wrong, you appear at the door with something for us.”
She met her first husband — a “flyboy,” as her father skeptically put it, who was in the Air Force and based in Westhampton — at the bowling alley in Westhampton Beach. They married in 1962 and lived for a while in Greenport. “We were very much in love at that time,” Maureen said, “but we were different people; as you grow older, you become different people.”
Her first child, Michael, was born in Greenport in 1963; he is now a teacher and administrator at the Hoosac School in upstate New York. Her twins, Dean and Dana, came eight years later in New Bern, North Carolina. Dean is headmaster at the Hoosac School and Dana lives on Shelter Island. He helped Maureen with Billy during his long illness.
There is a lot more to tell about Maureen but no room for it here. For one thing, she made a point of sitting in the “blacks only” waiting room at her North Carolina doctor’s office “just to tick everybody off.”
She loves her work at the church, which she describes as “so much more than answering the phone.” She credits volunteers from the parish for helping her with her work. She subscribes to a “great courses” program that is focusing now on art history; she also she knits and gardens. She used to bowl. “I’m never bored,” she said.
She has never taken a vacation. “My husband did not believe in vacations. ‘We live on the nicest place on the earth,’ he said. ‘Why would you want to go anywhere else?’”