Harry Johnston ’71 didn’t know why anybody might be interested in him. He’s just a retired, third-party medical claims guy living in West Virginia. A pair of old college buddies had accurately described him as unassuming but also said: Harry Johnston has fostered 200 children over the years.

“Two-hundred and thirty, actually,” Johnston corrected, but still didn’t think that was any claim to fame and was unmoved by the suggestion it might be.

Johnston is a plain-spoken man with a subtle cadence that gives little hint at the depths beneath the surface of words unadorned and unaffected. He plays bridge. He takes care of drug-addicted babies. What’s the big deal?

It’s hard to get a man like that to brag on himself, to let you in at all on any kind of specialness. One might listen to the straight facts and assume what primarily drives him at the risk of being incorrect. In 1966, Johnston lost his father and ended up at Berea’s Foundation School to finish high school. Soon afterward, he chose college over the Navy. That there was a war in Vietnam at the time had little to do with it. A fascination with people led him to major in sociology, to minor in philosophy.

He developed a love of bridge in college, playing the game with his friends between classes and work. He built trails in the Berea College Forest, worked at the laundry, in food service, as a janitor. “Just floated along,” he said, until he graduated.

In the 1970s, Johnston traveled across the country—mainly the east coast—painting steel and sandblasting. He married Kathy Aldridge in 1982. Kathy had a daughter, Toni, but she and Harry didn’t have any biological children together.

picture of the Johnston family in court on the day the adopted two of their children.
Kathy Johnston (blue dress) and Harry Johnston (front) pose for a photo on the day in 1998 that they adopted Jessica (white dress) and Michael (red shirt), with Judge Irene Berger presiding. Photo submitted

Ten years later, Kathy suffered a massive heart attack.

“The doctors said she had 24 hours to live, and I should be prepared,” Johnston said.

Kathy did die. Briefly. When she recovered, she told her husband about her newfound mission to foster children.

“I wouldn’t deny her” is all he said.

Photo of Kathy Johnston rocking a baby in an old fashioned rocking chair.
Kathy Johnston holds Piper Layne, her great great granddaughter. Photo submitted

Between 1992 and Kathy’s death in 2021, the Johnstons took in children and babies that entered the system, a few months, a year, nearly always temporarily, just long enough to provide them with medical treatments, visits to the dentists, to get them detoxed, to appear in court for them, to take them to the movies. He says the experience has been rewarding.

“Tiny NICU babies,” he related, referring to infants in the neonatal intensive care units of hospitals, “you just have to hold them and hold them.” In one case there were twins. “I could hold them each in one hand,” he continued. “It’s rewarding because you end up with happy little babies.”

And five of those babies, Harry and Kathy adopted: John Michael, who passed away in 2023 at the age of 32, John Michael’s sister Jessica, 28, Ethan, 15, and his half-brother, Jacob, 11. Six months after Kathy passed, Harry adopted CJ, who is 13.

Photo of Harry Johnston with his three adopted children.
Harry smiles with adopted children Jessica, Jacob and CJ (blue shirt). Photo submitted

He says he’s finished raising children once the three boys remaining in his home have grown up. At 74, he’s likely done enough.

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4 months ago

Hi. A lot of these dates are wrong. Kathy died on April 9, 2021 (https://www.kellerfuneralhome.net/obituary/kathy-johnston) and Michael died on Jan 22, 2023

Abbie Darst
4 months ago
Reply to  Kacie

Thank you for correcting the dates in the article. Author, Jason Miller, showed the article to Harry before publishing and had approval, so I hate that the incorrect dates made it into print. I have corrected them on this online version.
-Abbie Darst

3 months ago

As a child fortunate enough to have spent a part of my life under John and Kathy’s care, I can attest to the significant impact they have made on the lives of their foster children. The stability and happiness I experienced during my time with them has left a lasting positive effect on my life. So good to see this wonderful article about such an awesome family! ♥️

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