Red Deer Mayor Ken Johnston got hitched earlier this month in a marriage ceremony that was all about family — and serendipity.
Johnston, a widower, got married for the second time in a backyard ceremony on Aug. 5. “It was perfect weather,” he recalled, as he and his new bride, Carolyn, became husband and wife in front of relatives who had travelled here from Newfoundland and across Alberta.
Although their journey as spouses is just starting out, the two have a long, shared history, having known each other since their 20s.
“It’s an interesting story,” said Johnston — although one that involves some tragedy.
Carolyn had been married to his younger brother Craig, who died of cancer at age 61 in August 2016.
Just seven months later, in March of 2017, Johnston’s first wife, Isabelle died of a heart condition at 59.
“Those were very dark days, the darkest,” recalled Johnston, as he and Carolyn went through the grieving process with their now adult children. During this bereavement, they shared a lot of stories about the fun times they had in the past with Craig and Isabelle.
Johnston first came to Alberta from Newfoundland with Isabelle (or ‘Isy’) in 1980. With Alberta then booming, it seemed banks were opening a new branch every month, recalled the retired banker.
Johnston, who had wed “grounded” Isabelle in 1978, was seeking better opportunities out West. And he was impressed enough by Alberta to give an encouraging report to his brother Craig, who was a lab technician.
“I told him, ‘If you arrive out here at 9 a.m. you will probably have a job at Foothills Hospital by noon.’ And that’s pretty much what happened.” Craig moved to Calgary in 1981. A year later, he married fellow lab tech Carolyn.
Johnston and Isy were together for 39 years. They raised two children together while moving around Alberta for banking opportunities.
Craig and Carolyn raised four kids in Calgary. And over this time, the two couples shared many good times.
Johnston believes it was these commonalities that led him and Carolyn to talk about taking their relationship in a new direction. He still remembers the day of their discussion — April 28, 2018. It was when a number of family birthdays were being celebrated, including what would have been Craig’s 63rd.
“We said, “Why don’t we try…?’” recalled Johnston. But he admitted they had both vaguely wondered what would their late spouses think of them now dating?
Exactly two years later, a strange occurrence happened to help settle this question.
On April 28, 2020, Johnston was walking with a friend — then two metres apart because of the pandemic— near a bench on Spruce Drive that he had previously thought of as Isy’s bench.
He had sometimes stopped there to talk to his late wife, but wasn’t planning to that time because his friend was with him. But then Johnston recalled hearing a soft voice in his head telling him “Go to the bench.”
Surprised, he changed course and ended up in front of that seat. He immediately noticed something glinting from under a tree branch on a retaining wall behind the bench. “It was a ring,” said Johnston — “a cheap little ring, with a cubic zirconia in it.”
He took it as a sign that his late wife approved of him moving ahead with his relationship with Carolyn. ”It seems like all the stars aligned” when the ring fit Carolyn’s finger perfectly.
“She told me this was going to be the ring” — the only thing Johnston did was have the man-made stone exchanged for a real diamond before he gave it to Carolyn to mark their engagement.
He still marvels over this: “What are the chances of me finding a ring on April 28, at Isy’s bench, with a friend along to witness it so people didn’t think I’d lost my mind?…
“It left me with feelings of peace and wonderment, and I’ve never looked back,” he added. “ I am absolutely certain that she and I were meant to be together.”
Johnston said he and Carolyn feel fortunate that all six of their children support their union. “I think they recognized that our deepening feelings were quite genuine.”
He credits her support and encouragement for his decision to run for mayor in the last municipal election— a time when he thought about stepping down from council, but was plagued by thoughts of unfinished business.
”I have always admired Carolyn’s strength…. She’s always a safe place at the end of a very long day, or week or month… She gives me assurance, comfort and confidence.”