Cheswick man sets sights on better A-K Valley Heritage Museum

By Barbara Daugherty  
Sunday, February 9, 2003

S. Hartley Johnston is a true Renaissance man.

The Cheswick resident served with the Navy in the Korean War, returned to Pennsylvania and earned a bachelor's degree at Indiana State Teachers College and a master's degree at Penn State, then a doctorate degree in higher education administration and philosophy from the same university.

He has taught high school music in Kane and Fox Chapel, where he initiated the strings program, then moved on to help found and build community colleges from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. He served in many capacities at those colleges, including president and academic dean.

Retired from the academic world, he became involved in the export business and today is CEO of the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society Heritage Museum in Tarentum.

There he spends endless hours practicing his administrative and organizational expertise gratis and loving every minute of it.

Johnston was born in Harrison at Mile Lock Lane and 10th Avenue. He graduated from Springdale High School but said: "My family moved around a lot. I went to a lot of schools, but that gave me a chance to see a lot of different people and learn to get along."

His father owned and operated S.K. Johnston and Sons in Tarentum, contractors who installed brick streets, and also worked for PPG in East Deer and Ford City and installed ventilating shafts for mines.

Unfortunately, the family lost everything and moved to Dormont, then lived along Bull Creek Road in Fawn and Huntington Beach, Calif., before returning to Cheswick, where he lived from 1941 to 1949.

After graduating from high school, Johnston served with the Navy during the Korean War, then attended college, where he earned bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees.

Johnston taught high school music, but the community college movement was just getting started and he took a job as dean of instruction at Beaver County Community College.

Moving on, he completed a feasibility study for Westmoreland County Community College and at its inception, took a post as college president, where he served from 1970 to 1974.

A phone call from a friend in North Carolina had Johnston packing his bags and heading south.

"They were building a campus and they wanted me to help them get it going." He served as vice president and academic dean, responsible for three locations during the building phase of Anson Technical College in Wadesboro, N.C. He was there from 1974 to 1982.

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

So, he accepted a position as academic dean of the North campus of Allegheny County Community College in McCandless. In 1991, however, his wife died of cancer and Johnston retired in 1992.

"I lived in Franklin Park for about a year after my wife died, in this big house with a big yard, and I decided to move back to Cheswick," he said. "It was a small town, and I knew it and the people and it was safe."

Then, his life took a turn similar to something out of a Harlequin romance novel.

Betty Ann Boswell Premick, a divorcee, had been his girlfriend at Springdale High. Learning of the death of his wife, she sent a sympathy card. The rest is history.

"We pooled our resources, built a house in Cheswick and married in 1993. It was destined to be," he said. "She had no desire to leave. She was a small-town girl."

An open house event at the historical society museum offered him an opportunity to meet Chris Magoc, who was museum director at that time.

"We hit it off. My hobby is music, but I didn't have much to do," he said. "For many years, I had imported things from China and given tours of China. I like history, and he got me involved."

He was in the right place at the right time. Magoc had to leave and Johnston was elected chairman of the museum board in 1994. "I looked at the museum and wondered, 'Where can we go?'"

What they did under his tutelage was accomplish original museum goals, including getting the facility remodeled, cataloging every piece in the museum and installing new lighting.

The job is a tough one, but Johnston takes it in stride, often devoting 30 to 40 hours per week to the museum.

"I worked all my life. I like to work and I'll keep on working. I go like hell. I'm pretty active."

He feels his unpaid position is important because of the history of the area.

"The Valley has a tremendous history that can be used to look to the future. (The museum) is something to take pride in and in the people who developed it early on. We just brought it up to date.

"We got some funding and took an aggressive position on advertising and fostering the exhibits and program," he said. "Though it's in Tarentum, it represents the whole Valley. We are holding hands tightly, smiling and moving forward."

The museum currently has 55 volunteers. "Some are there every week, cleaning, setting up displays, trimming the grass around the building, etc. Some you don't see but once or twice a year, but they're active."

Cathy Wencel of East Deer is the only paid, full-time employee of the museum, and a Johnston fan.

"He is a devoted volunteer. He spends an exorbitant amount of time here and this is volunteerism he should get a gold star for this.

"He is the catalyst that makes this place go," Wencel said. "If something needs to be done, he's there to step in and do it. The whole organization depends on Hartley, whether it's grant writing or moving furniture. You name it. He does a tremendous amount of work."

Charles Culleiton of Tarentum, president of the museum board, has known Johnston about 10 years. "Before he was on the board, he was involved in education and did a lot of work with fund-raising. He enjoys doing that and enjoys working with the historical society to raise money and improve the entire program.

"I enjoy working with him," Culleiton said. "He can be very demanding. He sets high goals for himself and the organization. He pushes everyone and himself, and he gets a lot of work done."

His goal with the museum? "That it be considered a major asset to history to celebrate and preserve the history of the area not just the repository of old stuff.

"This is a good way to wind up a career," Johnston said. "We all have a tendency to do what we like to do. I would be bored out of my mind if I didn't have something important to do. I have a reason to get up every morning. With this, there is more work than I can do.

"I love it, and I believe strongly in the goal."

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