Ursuline grad was priest, professor
Poland man, 73, now part of musical trio
POLAND — Jim Johnston recalls the day his son, Jim Johnston Jr., came through the door with an unusual request that, at first glance, seemed to be as backward as it was out of sequence.
“My son walked in the house and said, ‘We have a gig in six weeks,’ and I said, ‘That’s interesting, because we don’t have a band,'” Johnston, 73, a 1967 Ursuline High School graduate who grew up on Youngstown’s West Side, recalled.
Perhaps the driving force behind Johnston Jr.’s out-of-the-blue request 12 years ago was a concern regarding his father’s health. In fall 2010, the elder Johnston had been diagnosed with colon cancer; in early 2011, the cancer metastasized to his liver, coupled with a grim prognosis.
Nevertheless, by mid-2011, his health had improved enough to give taking the stage a try. The small musical unit, which initially consisted of father and son, originally was called the Jim Johnston band and, about a year later, was renamed Generation Gap.
After that, the two of them called themselves Seamus (pronounced SHAY-mis), which is the Irish equivalent of “James,” because of their same first names. A short time later, a third Jim converted the duo into a trio in the person of Jim Thompson, a friend of the younger Johnston, who runs a Boardman medical lab, and who became their drummer. Johnston Sr. and Jr. play the acoustic guitar.
“He’s been with us at least eight of our 12 years,” the elder Johnston said.
Their popularity — and the number of appearances throughout the Mahoning Valley — has picked up over the years. In 2019, Seamus had more than 60 performances, Johnston remembered.
He used the word “eclectic” to describe the band’s musical repertoire and vocal harmonies in which they dip into the songbooks of artists such as John Mellencamp, Jimmy Buffet, John Denver, James Taylor, Don Henley and Bryan Adams. Johnston’s primary musical influences were Taylor, Cat Stevens and The Beatles, he explained, adding that his son was influenced by the Dave Matthews Band.
That’s not to say, however, that the three of them are averse to deviating now and then from such a wealth of popular songs. One evening, Seamus received a favorable response for offering up its interpretation of “Ophelia” a 1975 hit from The Band.
“Someone came up and said, ‘Nobody does that song,'” Johnston recalled.
Seamus performs for private functions as well as in venues such as Crickets Bar and Grill in Youngstown, Bogey’s Bar & Grill in Coitsville and elsewhere. They also played during last year’s celebration of the completed $27 million renovation of the main branch of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. In addition, Seamus also is a fixture on and near St. Patrick’s Day.
On one Thursday evening at Bogey’s, the three of them had to improvise quickly and literally on their feet because of a power outage. Not knowing what to do at first, they came up with the idea of walking from table to table playing the popular 1971 song “Draggin’ the Line” by Tommy James and the Shondells.
Despite his musical acumen, Johnston Sr. was not a musical protege from a young age.
In 1975, Johnston was ordained after having gone through Catholic seminary in Cincinnati, then he served several years as an assistant pastor for St. Michael Catholic Church in Canton and St. Patrick Church in Youngstown. While completing postgraduate work before earning a master’s degree in religion and literature at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, he served three churches in that city, all of which were under the Diocese of Richmond.
In 1981, Johnston left active ministry and returned to the Valley in 1982, the year he married his wife, Joan, and began a family that also consisted of their daughter, Julia Rach.
Once ensconced in Youngstown, Johnston landed a part-time position as adjunct professor of philosophy and religious studies at Youngstown State University before YSU’s English department hired him for what turned out to be a 38-year career teaching composition courses that lasted until the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, Johnston taught English composition part time at Penn State Shenango in Sharon, Pa., as well as at Kent State University at Trumbull and a few other KSU branches. He also found time to play guitar on weekends at area churches, “so I had a lot of half-jobs,” he said.
Johnston also had received training in pastoral counseling in which he was under the supervision of a psychologist. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, he taught psychology courses and worked with residents in several area nursing homes. Johnston’s diverse career path also included working for the Family Services Agency in Sharon, where he helped at-risk children with behavior challenges.
“I went from working with the elderly in nursing homes to 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds with behavior problems,” he said.
Johnston added that he plans to forge ahead on the musical and family fronts, the latter of which entails spending time a few days per week with his two grandchildren, ages 2 and 5. He also is entertaining the possibility of returning to teaching composition classes at KSU and, of course, keeping the acoustic guitar close at hand.
“I’ll play as long as I can,” he said. “That I can say with some confidence.”
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