Portrait in Philanthropy: John W. Johnstone Jr. '54, H'90
This portrait appeared in The Wick magazine: Fall 2010
John Johnstone passed away on March 27, 2011.
John Johnstone is rock-solid.
Like the Hartwick Science Center named for him and his wife, Claire, he is straightforward and impressive. Like the students who learn in that Center, he is focused and determined. His approach: start small, work hard, do well, and be ready. His outcome: a career, and a life, that is extraordinary.
John Johnstone is influential.
A self-made man, he was a long-time leader of the petrochemical industry. In 1996 he retired as CEO, President, and Chairman of the Board of Olin Corporation, a Fortune 200 company. As a philanthropist he has helped to transform Hartwick College and the educational experiences of countless students. He is an Honorary Chair of the College's upcoming capital campaign, past Chair of the Bicentennial Campaign, Trustee Emeritus, a 1954 graduate, and 1990 Honorary Degree recipient.
John Johnstone is uncomplicated.
Despite his many achievements, at heart he is a still a boy from Brooklyn and Queens, the son of a New York City police officer. Married for 54 years to the love of his life, he is the father of three and grandfather to six.
John Johnstone is grateful.
A full tuition scholarship gave this young basketball player the opportunity to get a Hartwick education. Landing a "real job" sweeping the hallways and cleaning the labs of Bresee Hall kept him in spending money. Work on the railroad five days a week meant he earned money and built strength. All the while he double-majored in Chemistry and Physics, subjects in which "If you didn't keep up you were swamped," he says. A grueling schedule, but Johnstone remembers his Hartwick years fondly. "That was a very good part of my life."
Chance brought him to Hartwick in 1950 when he and his parents visited a friend in Oneonta. As they walked downtown and through Bresee's Department Store, this 6'9'' tall young man attracted attention. Word spread and the next day Johnstone was on the Hill, meeting with Coach Hal Bradley, and being recruited to play for Hartwick.
"I got to be part of an outstanding basketball program," Johnstone recalls, noting that most of the players were returning veterans. "There were a lot of veterans at the College then and they had seen a lot of things. They had a steadying influence on the rest of us. I think they helped us go on to live a better life."
In 1954 Johnstone knew where his life was headed. "I had written a paper on petrochemical refining for one of my classes, and was fascinated," he recalls. "My hope was to secure a sales position in the industry."
He got his chance at Oldbury Electrochemical, a small company based in New York City. Three years into his career, the company was acquired by Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corp. Seizing the opportunity to manage major accounts, he and Claire moved to Cincinnati and Johnstone began his rapid rise. His 22 years with the company brought more moves and even more promotions.
When Hooker Chemicals was acquired by Occidental Petroleum, Johnstone moved to Airco Inc. Four years later he went to Olin Corporation as a vice president and general manager. In less than 10 years this Hartwick graduate was named President of Olin Corporation, then Chief Executive Officer, then Chairman of the Board.
The Right Combination
Pressed to identify the secret of his success, Johnstone says, "The key point is having the proper education and the proper tools at the right moment. In my career those moments came fairly regularly.
"Everyone has a skill set," he explains. "It includes the education you've had, how you use that education, and the people you associate with. I was fortunate to have very good people who pushed me along as opportunities arose. Some mentors you choose; some choose you."
Johnstone broadened his knowledge base at every turn, reaching into research and development, finance, and more. "To be a candidate for something new, you have to keep growing," he advises. "You need formal education, and you also need working knowledge and experience. I believe that if you do good work, good things will happen."
The couple's good work is expressed in their philanthropy. "In the early years we were typical Annual Fund supporters," Johnstone recalls. "The more exposure I had to the financials of the College, the more I understood the need for extraordinary giving. As my ability to give increased, so did our contributions to Hartwick."
"My background is the reason why I've supported the College the way that I have," Johnstone says, referring to his volunteer service over the years and the couple's many generous gifts. "I feel like I owed Hartwick in a sense. I have spent a long time repaying my obligation, and have done so willingly."
When he joined the Board of Trustees, he appreciated the responsibilities that came with the role. "Past Trustees had stepped in to make a major difference when I was a student," Johnstone says. "I felt there was a tradition to live up to."
The Johnstones approach their giving strategically. "I believe every donor has two choices," he says. "You can spread your gifts around or you can concentrate your giving. More than once we have said to ourselves, ‘Where can we make a real difference?' The answer has always been Hartwick."
Johnstone sees such a decision as good for the College, and good for the donor. "The more you help your college, the better it is for you," he says. "By financially supporting the institution, you are increasing the value of your own education."
Sixty years after he entered Hartwick, John Johnstone has proven his point.