There was palpable shock and genuine grief among the staff of Queens on Sunday evening following announcement of the death of the Vice-Chancellor, Paddy Johnston. A top flight academic and brilliant administrator had died suddenly in his prime when he had so much more to give.
We were in the same year at St Columb’s College, Derry during the first half of the 1970s. He being a day boy and I being a boarder, and being in different classes of that year, we had minimal contact. That was until the College organised a Form 4 careers visit to the University of Ulster Campus at Coleraine. On the return by train he was in my carriage sitting quietly on his own in the corner and I asked, as a way of bringing him into the conversation, if he had seen anything to interest him. Nothing on the UU syllabus was of any interest, he bluntly declared; he was going to UCD to study medicine and work in cancer research. This was 1974, two years before our A levels exams, and here was someone that had a clarity and confidence in his future that I could only envy. Then he was shy and unassuming, timid even, yet in that short conversation he impressed me greatly.
And off course he followed that path and brilliantly too. Following medicine in UCD he spent some time in the US at the National Institute of Health, a world leader in cancer treatment, before being head-hunted to take over the Cancer Centre at City Hospital and Queens.
I met him only infrequently during his years at Queens mainly through mutual friends. His steely vision remained and his leadership to see the vision achieved had greatly developed. The vision for Queens was Vision 2020 – to internationalise the University in a global economy -and where it was not popular with all, he and his senior management team, were right in pursing it.
The work in achieving Vision 2020 will now be left to others. I can only imagine the heart break for this wife and four sons and the wider Johnston family who congregate regularly for short breaks just north of Buncranna. Paddy Johnson was, in many ways like the rest of us; getting on with life, raising children some difficult, doing his best unsure at times but he was also an outstanding individual who did so much for the organisations he worked for and he will be sadly and genuinely missed by so many.