by Maria SCRIVANI
Even two people as skilled at planning as are Gail and Bruce Johnstone couldnt
have prepared for the trials they endured in the last decade. The former city planning
director and former president of Buffalo State College, respectively, remain one of this
areas most dynamic couples despite Bruces near-death from a particularly
virulent cancer. You might say theyve led a charmed life.
I thought we were coming back here for Bruce to die, Gail recalls of the
worst period, February of 1994. At the time she was out of city government, working as
vice president for planning at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Bruce, having ended his
11-year tenure as Buffalo State president, was serving as chancellor of the SUNY system.
He worked in Albany and Gail worked there as well, managing to conduct business on a more
efficient scale for Roswell by operating directly out of the state health department
Though Bruce had had major surgery to remove a pancreatic malignancy at Sloan-Kettering
in New York, Gail wanted him to follow up in what she felt was a more caring atmosphere at
Roswell. She tricked me into coming back to Buffalo, says Bruce, who was at
the time understandably loath to see more doctors.
Gail at two years-old.
Bruce at four with his sister Mary.
Gail convinced him to stop in Western New York to see friends before Bruce was
scheduled to attend a conference in Arizona. She then got him to see a Roswell doctor, who
convinced him to start a new therapy. It saved his life, Gail says simply.
Slowly that spring of 94 Bruce, whod lost 80 pounds through his ordeal, began
to gain weight and recover. He was getting strong enough to work again, though hed
left the chancellors post.
In a true charmed life scenario, Bruce began doing things hed always dreamed of
doing. During all the time I was in higher education administration, I was an
adjunct professor, never a tenured professor or dean, he recalls. Partly to prove
himself as an academic, he had always been driven to do research and scholarship, and had
published numerous monographs and books. Now he had the chance to do research and writing
full time, as well as teachingand he seized the opportunity.
I began teaching in the fall of 94 at the State University of Buffalo. I
was hesitant to accept doctoral students because of my health, but by early 95 I was
taking on graduate students. Today he carries one of the heaviest loads in his
department and is busier than ever. His areas of expertisethe economics and finance
of higher education, the administration and governance of higher education and
international comparative higher education financehave led him to new opportunities.
Hes traveled extensively and, under a three-year Ford Foundation grant, is compiling
a worldwide database with comparative tuition and financial aid costs.
Bruce was the starting forward on a Champion Conference Basketball Team.
Im still learning to pace myself, says Bruce. Im learning
how to say no. Gail says hes too busy, but its clear shes
delighted to see her lifelong partner so engaged. The couple live in one of Buffalos
waterfront condos, where they enjoy what Bruce call the citys most beautiful
sunsets. They find time to enjoy it alleven though Gails professional life is
also demanding and time-consuming.
She is a quiet powerhouse, serving these days as executive director of the Community
Foundation for Greater Buffalo (formerly The Buffalo Foundation). She works with a
nine-person board that last year disbursed some five million dollars to meet community
needs ranging from arts funding to education and economic development. The foundation, set
up in 1919 as the first of its kind in New York State, has over $100 million in
Gail cheering for her high school.
One of the real strengths of a community foundation is that caring individuals
can do much more than they could on their own, says Gail, who notes that
donorsindividuals and organizations who give bequests, endowments and living
agreementsare partners with the foundation. Its a philanthropic history
particularly rich in Western New York. I may send out a letter today announcing
board approval of grant monies based on a commitment made by an individual 80 years ago.
An endowment fund is forever. If someone wants to become immortal, he should make
a bequest to a community foundation. Gifts from your fund are always made in your
Gail works closely with other foundations (hand in glove with The United
Way) and government officials and community leaders to improve the quality of life
in her adopted hometown. I care deeply about this community, she says.
And I think the level of commitment to volunteer boards here is extraordinary.
She and Bruce are Midwesterners by birthshe from Kansas, he from Minnesota. They
met in graduate school at Harvard and moved frequently for Bruces work. They landed
in Buffalo for the Buffalo State presidency in 1979. Ever since, they have been committed
to this area, while cherishing their heartland roots.
Bruce and Gails wedding in 1965.
|Bruces parents, Gail, Bruce, Cameron and
Duncan at Bruces
Inauguration Dinner as President of Buffalo State College.
Growing up in the Midwest was great, says Gail. We still hold on to
those valuesI treasure the integrity of the Midwest. She and Bruce maintain a
summer home in Michigan, where they enjoy canoeing, a pastime hes enjoyed since
childhood. I took my first canoe trip with my dad when I was about 9, he
recalls. I took my first whitewater canoe trip with the late Bill Hoyt. Bruce
Johnstone was a member of the party that was filmed in On To The Polar Sea, a
canoe saga immortalized in what was a Ted Turner production.
Canoeing is a coveted escape for the Johnstones.
Bruce, a college friend and the bounty of Minnesota boundary waters.
When theyre not enjoying the outdoor life the Johnstones spend leisure hours with
music. Bruce is on the Board of the Amherst Saxaphone Quartet and Gail is on the Board of
As opera fans, they also attend productions in Hamilton and make yearly excursions to
the Met. Their Persian cat, doyenne of their downtown condo (Weve always had
dogs, but were too busy to walk them, confides Gail), is named Katia after one
of Bruces favorite sopranos.
Bruce in the Fall of 1992 when he was a cancer patient.
The Johnstones travel together whenever possible and this past summer had the pleasure
of taking a family vacation in South Africa. Joining them were their best
friends, their children; son Duncan, who is completing requirements for his medical
degree and just received his doctorate from the University of Washington in Seattle and
daughter Cameron, a Washington, D.C. attorney who specializes in employment law.
Bruce in Spring 1993 when he was SUNY Chancellor.
The children, say Bruce and Gail practically in unison, are what they are most proud of
in their very fulland charmedlife together. As Gail explains, One of the
very few magic parts of Bruces cancer is we got to see the measure of our kids while
we were still alive. Few people have that privilege. Theyre our best
Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.
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