Remembering Gene Johnston – thoughts from Marsha Smith
“True story…” Those words always grabbed the attention of Normandy Allies participants—another tale was coming in the inimitable style of Gene Johnston! Just as we were beginning conversations about the 2010 trip, Gene died. He is greatly missed on both sides of the ocean.
I first met Gene by telephone in 1997. He had heard about my dream of taking students to Normandy, and called to say that “I can help you make this happen.” And of course, he did more than that. Our journeys would not be what they are without the incredible network of friends whom he called upon to produce an extraordinary experience for Americans, year after year. Gene introduced us to “his Normandy”—an experience of gracious welcome, enduring friendship, and perpetual honor for all who had served there in the tumultuous summer of 1944.
Sherry Haskins, Gene’s daughter, told me about her childhood with Gene taking her and her sister on history vacations to Manassas and Bull Run while they wished they could go to Busch Gardens like everyone else—and then growing to realize how fortunate she had been and becoming a Southern history major herself. Sherry said that Gene spoke so often of Normandy Allies and his time with the groups. She knew he delighted in once again be able to share history—the back-story and the details that he retained so well—as well as sharing his beloved Normandy.
I remember once, standing beside Gene at Colleville-sur-Mer, looking out at all the crosses and Stars of David. He turned to me and said, “This is why I do it, Marsha, because of them.”
We shall miss Gene’s wonderful energy and vitality. I am so very glad to have known him, he truly enhanced my life.—True story!
We Remember Gene…
Originally published in Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies.
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