The Colgate Scene
March 1999
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Building a life

by John D. Hubbard
Rev. Bradford Johnston works with wood and deals with people.
Reverend Bradford Johnston '68 is a carpenter who makes his living with his hands and his life with his head and heart.

     On a winter's workday a bay window is going in, to better capture a mountain view, and Johnston has spent eight hours under a plastic tent measuring twice and cutting once.

     Just down the hill from this relatively small job sits a house Johnston oversaw from start to finish, a five-year project that was a test of Johnston's carpentry skills, organizational prowess and his ability to minister to a client's needs and desires.

     "We discussed everything," says Johnston of the big job that has made a splash in the trade journals and is another dream come true for some Vermont newcomers. The project also highlights the evolution of his career toward contracting. It has been a long and not always easy trip.

     Johnston majored in anthropology and sociology at Colgate before he went into the seminary at Meadville Theologic School. With an MA in theological studies, the son of a Unitarian minister took an associate position at a church in Colorado.

     "It didn't work out too well," says Johnston. "I decided I didn't want to be a minister." The decision, which Johnston terms "traumatic," disappointed his parents and made him feel like a failure, a weight he carried along with his tool box for many years.

     Johnston had enjoyed working on the family summer home in Vermont, turning it into a permanent residence, and soon was learning carpentry on the job, first in San Francisco, then Cambridge, Mass., and finally in Vermont.

     "I like the math and physics. There's a lot of chances for original thinking. I like the physical side, too," says Johnston, who was reasoning as a young man maybe hard work would prolong his life. He smiles now at the notion.

     "Socially, it's not high prestige. I went from being asked in the front door to being shown around back. It was a major disappointment initially but as the projects got bigger and I understood the intricacies it got better."

     There was the addition to the congregational church in Newbury, for instance. Johnston's work accommodates a pipe organ and the former Thirteener sometimes sings in the choir there.

     "It was pleasing to help that community."

     Another time Johnston worked with a friend who owned a wood lot and a horse. They skidded trees to the construction site and put up a barn, hand hewing the beams with an adz.

     Johnston was part of the crew working on a covered bridge that spanned the Connecticut River. The effort attracted Charles Kuralt, who was on the road for CBS in those days.

     Perhaps the biggest job has been building his own house around his growing family -- Amber is finishing up at Union and Naomi is in her first year at Boston University -- and the house is nearing completion. Johnston and his wife Leni, a school teacher, met in seminary in a course titled "revelation in psychological perspective."

     "If nothing else, Leni was revealed to me," says Johnston, his timing down pat.

     "We both studied theology and sociology, so we have lots of spirited conversation, which I enjoy tremendously."

     Johnston's '60s idealism, he reports, has survived, tempered but still strong.

     "It's interesting how it's playing out as I get older and in less of a hurry. I've learned it's better to consider things fully before you go jumping off. I'm always working on the details."

     Details make up his work and the building trades touch on a number of issues. It is obvious Johnston is a contemplative man who relishes debate on the job in a state still run by a citizen government. Land use, education bills, the swelling population in the Green Mountains, where, it wasn't so long ago, there were more cows than people, are all topics that make a difference.

     "Houses are getting bigger and more complex and costs are way up. So this is where my sociology and anthropology side kicks in. Who are we trying to impress, where do we draw the line, why do we need the fanciest kitchen on the block? They're the questions [Professor of Sociology & Anthropology Emeritus] Warren Ramshaw would ask."

     Most often, however, it is the personal rather than the political that affects Johnston's days.

     "You really get very close to your customers," says Johnston, who is, in fact, working side by side with the homeowner installing that bay window. "You're in their life and I enjoy that. I think it's an extension of the ministry work -- getting to know people well."

     These days Johnston might perform a wedding, conduct a funeral or preside over a baby dedication for friends and he used to preach "from time to time," though he hasn't in awhile.

     "Someday I'll think about getting back to it."

     In the meantime, there are things to build.

     "It's fun and it's good to see change, not only on a daily basis but also years later."

     Brad Johnston lives in a saltbox facing south. He looks out over a mountain with the woods around him and neighbors nearby. As an undergraduate one of his solos with the Thirteen was "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" and he and Leni know that gratitude first hand now. There is a red pickup with all the tools he needs in the yard and good, honest, hardworking people to lend a hand when need be.

     "It's been hard work, but it's been good."

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