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March 2000

The Charmed Life of
Gail and Bruce Johnstone

by Maria SCRIVANI

Even two people as skilled at planning as are Gail and Bruce Johnstone couldn’t 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 area’s most dynamic couples despite Bruce’s near-death from a particularly virulent cancer. You might say they’ve 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 offices.

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.

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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, who’d lost 80 pounds through his ordeal, began to gain weight and recover. He was getting strong enough to work again, though he’d left the chancellor’s post.

In a true charmed life scenario, Bruce began doing things he’d 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 teaching—and 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 expertise—the economics and finance of higher education, the administration and governance of higher education and international comparative higher education finance—have led him to new opportunities. He’s traveled extensively and, under a three-year Ford Foundation grant, is compiling a worldwide database with comparative tuition and financial aid costs.

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Bruce was the starting forward on a Champion Conference Basketball Team.

“I’m still learning to pace myself,” says Bruce. “I’m learning how to say no.” Gail says he’s too busy, but it’s clear she’s delighted to see her lifelong partner so engaged. The couple live in one of Buffalo’s waterfront condos, where they enjoy what Bruce call the city’s most beautiful sunsets. They find time to enjoy it all—even though Gail’s 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 endowments.

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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 donors—individuals and organizations who give bequests, endowments and living agreements—are partners with the foundation. It’s 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 name.”

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 birth—she from Kansas, he from Minnesota. They met in graduate school at Harvard and moved frequently for Bruce’s 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.

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Bruce and Gail’s wedding in 1965.

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Bruce’s parents, Gail, Bruce, Cameron and Duncan at Bruce’s
Inauguration Dinner as President of Buffalo State College.

“Growing up in the Midwest was great,” says Gail. “We still hold on to those values—I treasure the integrity of the Midwest.” She and Bruce maintain a summer home in Michigan, where they enjoy canoeing, a pastime he’s 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.

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Canoeing is a coveted escape for the Johnstones.

Bruce, a college friend and the bounty of Minnesota boundary waters.

When they’re 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 the BPO.

As opera fans, they also attend productions in Hamilton and make yearly excursions to the Met. Their Persian cat, doyenne of their downtown condo (“We’ve always had dogs, but we’re too busy to walk them,” confides Gail), is named Katia after one of Bruce’s favorite sopranos.

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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.

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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 full—and charmed—life together. As Gail explains, “One of the very few magic parts of Bruce’s cancer is we got to see the measure of our kids while we were still alive. Few people have that privilege. They’re our best
friends.”

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.

 

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