With its curled edges held together by duct tape dulled from years of New England weather, the yellowing sign had seen better days.
Resting on a folding chair at the edge of Keene’s Central Square Saturday among a litany of anti-war signs, the “OUT OF IRAQ” placard stood out, not only because of its age, but because it was upside down.
That’s the way longtime Keene resident Jim Johnston always held it, his friends and family said.
And when people who drove by the square commented that it was flipped, the World War II veteran-turned-pacifist had a retort at the ready.
“It’s not my sign that’s upside down; it’s the world that’s upside down.”
Johnston, 98, died of old age April 29. He’d participated in the Keene Peace Vigil almost every weekend for more than 15 years. And on Saturday, fellow activists and loved ones paid him tribute. They told stories of him. They hugged. And they shared nips of alcohol Johnston’s daughter, Nan, brought for the occasion.
Near the square’s soldier’s monument, friends had erected a temporary monument, featuring poster boards with photos of Johnston alongside anti-war signs. There were pictures of Johnston waving his sign and photos from his 95th birthday. He was, as always, on the square that day. His friends brought him 95 cupcakes.
They’d also made a sign: “Happy 95th Birthday. Jim Johnston, WWII Veteran Standing on the Square Advocating for Peace Every Saturday for twelve years.”
On Saturday, another sign graced the square. It read “R.I.P. JIM JOHNSTON PATRIOT.”
“He was a person who deeply loved his country,” said Jackie Cleary of Westmoreland, who used to give Johnston rides to the weekly protests. “On the other hand, he had to adjust his mind to the things we were doing. He was uncomfortable about the talk amongst ourselves being critical of our country ... but he was totally against war. He was for peace.”
Johnston was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was raised in Long Island, according to his obituary. He left school after the 11th grade to enlist in the Army just before World War II began, in which he worked as an engineer. His daughter, Nan Johnston, said her father served for six years and was stationed in France.
The family moved to Westmoreland in 1960, she added, and her father worked hard to provide for them. His obituary says he owned Yankee Traveler Motel in the town for several years and worked at Kingsbury Machine Tool Corp. in Keene until his retirement in 1985.
He was divorced from Muriel Johnston, who died in 2015. They had six children together — Nan of Pacific Grove, Calif.; Eileen Carbone of The Villages, Fla.; James P. Johnston of Mexico City; Thomas Johnston of Wasilla, Alaska; Kathryn Johnston of Manchester; and Richard Johnston, who died previously.
His companion of more than 35 years, Carolyn Davis, also passed earlier, and Johnston considered her children, Karen and Jeff Luebkeman of Marlborough, to be family, Carbone said.
Nan said the weekly anti-war protests were among the things her father cherished most. His other passion in retirement, she said, was volunteering at the post-anesthesia care unit at Cheshire Medical Center. Her father made beds alongside the nurses there for years.
In his final hours, the nurses from that unit visited him, she said. So did some of his fellow pacifists.
“He roused, and he looked at them, and he said, ‘No more war,’ and those were his very last words,” she said.
Cleary, herself a longtime activist, said Johnston kept coming back to the square even after others had stopped. Bad weather didn’t deter him, she noted, and he attended weekly protests until his health would no longer permit it. His last one, she said, was this past November.
“There was no question about (him) being here. He had to be here.” Cleary said.
After Saturday’s protest, the 20 or so people who came to the square huddled by the bandstand for a short celebration of life ceremony. At the annual anniversary of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Jeff Scott of Chesterfield said, Johnston and other activists would read the names of soldiers and civilians who’d died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Today, we’ll read only one name,” Scott said: “Jim Johnston, 98.”
Later, Scott recalled how Johnston would read the names, one by one.
“The tears would almost well up in his eyes,” he said. “And he would offer comments: ‘Why? Why are these young people dying?’ And he got so emotional when he was reading. That was our Jim; that was our Jim.”