It is with sadness that we share the news of the passing of Don Johnston – the long-time news director of CFRB radio in Toronto and founding member of the Gordon Sinclair Foundation. Don died on Monday, in his 92nd year.
As a longstanding colleague and close friend of the controversial Gordon Sinclair, Johnston was a driving force in the movement to raise funds and set up a charitable foundation in Gordon Sinclair’s honour after the broadcaster’s death in 1984.
But Don was a major figure in Canadian broadcasting in his own right. In 1972 he left CHML Hamilton to accept the position of News Director of CFRB. Don enjoyed a long and successful career as a news executive with CFRB in its glory days when the station had an outsized influence on public affairs and the national conversation through its programming, in some ways a precursor to talk radio.
Over the years, Don was a stalwart member of the Gordon Sinclair Foundation, which initially offered a scholarship to young journalism graduates and since 2011 has awarded the annual $15,000 Gordon Sinclair Roving Reporter Bursary to support a research and reporting trip by an early career Canadian journalist who has recently graduated from one of Canada’s journalism programs.
In June of 2020, the Sinclair Foundation marked Don’s 90th birthday with a special tribute.
As the news director at CFRB for many years, Don had the challenge of managing the outspoken Sinclair.
“There was nobody like him—the crackling energy, the curiosity, the little barbs and observations on life,” Don recalled at the time of Sinclair’s death.
Don’s niece, Mary Pickett, got in touch with the Foundation at the time to say that she wanted to recognize her uncle’s milestone birthday by making a donation to the Gordon Sinclair Foundation, to help support young journalists.
She recalled fond memories of many visits with her Uncle Don and Aunt Helen – at their home, at their condo in Cancun, at their cottage up north, at the Shaw Festival, at family reunions in Ontario and in the States. She remembered Don as a great cook and also noted the deep affection and care he showed for his wife of more than 60 years, who was herself in declining health. Don’s knowledge of current events, history, sports, music, travel, and so many other subjects has meant hours of interesting conversation and made him a brilliant Trivial Pursuit player.
A kind and gentle soul, Don also loved to play the piano, a hobby he kept up right through to his last days, playing the piano almost every day, despite ill health and advancing dementia.
Don Johnston is survived by his wife Helen and was predeceased by their son David.
A celebration of life for Don Johnston will be held at Smith’s Funeral Home, 1167 Guelph Line, Burlington Ontario L7P 2S7, on March 12 at 1 p.m. Visitation with the family will begin at noon.