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William J. Johnston dies; Farmingdale educator, historian was 86

William J. Johnston, who worked as a teacher,

William J. Johnston, who worked as a teacher, assistant principal and principal in the Farmingdale school district, died March 30 at age 86, according to his family. Credit: Family Photo

William J. Johnston didn’t drive the streets of Farmingdale, but he may have known them better than anyone else.

For more than a half-century, he and his wife, the former Mildred Gloss, lived in the village in the same house on Sherman Road where they raised their six children.

Eschewing driving because of an eyesight problem, Johnston never owned a car and he and his brood traversed the neighborhood on foot.

That also is how Johnston usually got to work during his 32 years in the Farmingdale school district, first for four years as a teacher and then as an assistant principal and principal.

Johnston died March 30 at 86 in the Sherman Road home after suffering from declining health and losing his ability to walk following a stroke four years ago, according to his family.

But besides family, Johnston leaves behind a legacy of someone who devoted much of his life to preserving the community’s history.

It is perhaps the combination of Johnston’s penchant for walking and his appreciation and cultivation of Farmingdale’s local history for which he will be best remembered by many.

Starting in 1990, Johnston took on the volunteer position as Farmingdale village historian, a role he served in for 25 years, according to town officials.

In that role, Johnston led village history walks several times a year where people learned about Farmingdale’s historic buildings and other details of the neighborhood’s past, Farmingdale Mayor Ralph Ekstrand said in an interview.

Johnston also started the “Minute of History” interlude during the village’s summer concert series, a break in the musical performances in which Johnston or another speaker would share some of the area’s history.

“He was always looking to try to make the village a better place to be in,” Ekstrand said.

Nassau County Historical Society president Natalie Naylor, a retired Hofstra professor, said in an interview that she and Johnston shared an interest in the past.

She remembered her good friend Bill as a “wonderful local historian,” one whom she often drove to meetings of an organization in which they both took part.

Born William James Johnston on Aug. 11, 1932, Johnston grew up in Emsworth, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, said his son Kevin Johnston, 61, of Fort Salonga.

William J. Johnston was the youngest of two sons of parents who emigrated from Ireland to the United States.

He was a first-generation American who also became the first person in his family to go to college, his son said.

He said Johnston spent about eight years working as a high school social studies teacher in the Pittsburgh area after earning both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

Johnston and his wife married in July 1955 after he converted to her Roman Catholic religion, according to his family.

A turning point came in 1962, when Johnston answered an ad for a teaching position in the Farmingdale school district, his son said.

Johnston landed the job, and he and his wife bought the home that they’d live in together for 57 years.

Johnston worked in Farmingdale's public elementary schools, retiring in 1994 as the principal of Northside Elementary School, according to district officials.

He also served for many years as the president of the Farmingdale Bethpage Historical Society, according to his son.

A suit-and-tie kind of guy, Johnston ruled “by a gentleness,” according to his son, who called him a private person who nonetheless was poised when he put on history presentations for crowds.

“He always had a love of history. He was big on knowing one’s roots,” Kevin Johnston said.

Johnston’s funeral is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Kilian Roman Catholic Church in Farmingdale, followed by his burial at Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury.

Besides his wife, and son Kevin, Johnston is survived by sons William Johnston of West Tampa, Florida; Richard Johnston of Hauppauge; and Daniel Johnston of Orinda, California; daughters Maryellen Esposito of Staten Island; Bethanne Packert of Lloyd Harbor; and 16 grandchildren.

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