Dedication to Al and Marg Johnson
2007 marks the 25th anniversary of the famous Chemainus Revitalization Project, known around the world .
The project has been highly publicised and marketed as an extraordinary example of community spirit, where a small town’s locals rallied around a concept that gave them hope for the future, even when they were not sure of the outcome.
The face of the project was well known; what wasn’t obvious were those behind the scenes who were responsible for the initiation and development of the successful results that we see today.
One such individual, the unsung hero of the Mural /revitalization project who you may not have known, is Al Johnson.
The story of The Little Town That Did© is legendary.
Chemainus was on the verge of collapse from a possible mill closure of the town’s primary employer.
The implications of that shutdown were daunting. At the same time, the province was offering hope, through funding, for community revitalization projects for towns who needed to breathe new life into their communities, to restore confidence and ensure its future economic viability. The loan would enable towns to “beautify” and improve infrastructure. The opportunity sounded exciting, but getting it to work, and getting the community behind it was another matter.
Just over 25 years ago, Al and his wife, Marg , were newcomers to this small town, buying the local downtown grocery store. Graham Bruce, then Mayor of North Cowichan brought the revitalization initiative to the community business and townspeople. Just when the idea was about to die on the floor, newcomer Al Johnson jumped to the challenge to mobilize a committee and oversee this new opportunity for the town. This was the beginning of what we were all to see and experience of this powerful business leader.
The funding for the project was in the form of a loan- so it had to be paid back. Al and his committee explored different ways of trying to “recoup” the costs by finding imaginative ways to bring in more people to Chemainus, to increase business and to increase the tax base. And Al also needed to find a way to rally the business community to embrace the revitalization plan – without their support the project could not move ahead.
Al approached an artist/journalist of the area about drawing up an idea about putting pictures on the walls as a “beautification” of the downtown core as one way of getting building owners excited and involved. This “mural” concept was not a new idea- it has been around for centuries, and even suggested at earlier times by others, but the idea did not take hold originally. For this mill town, this artistic approach to improving the town’s appearance was foreign to many. The concept was accepted, but the real impact of the idea was to come later under formation of a society and administration to take it to the level it is known for today.
So who is this Al Johnson? Big in spirit and stature (6’6” and counting), generous and dedicated to giving all his expertise and energy to his new found home. He was a tireless volunteer and exemplified the Rotarian creed. He was a man who would never back down from any challenge, no matter how outrageous it might seem to others. Those who knew Al understood that he did not believe in “impossible”.
Al was a community leader who led by example. He took the initiative to jump in and take the reigns of a new and untested idea which was to become legendary in its scope and success. But this was Al’s way. Many people’s lives and organizations were touched by his generous involvement and support, both personal and financial over the years.
People were naturally attracted to this very tall man whose demeanour exuded confidence and a tenacity to achieve. He made a difference in people’s lives. Always thinking about the other person, even in times of serious ill health himself, he will always be remembered for that warm and caring spirit. And even in those later years of failing health, Al’s unwavering desire and actions to do more for our community was unparalleled.
While his role in the mural project is substantial, and often unrecognized, Al Johnson is known here by many as the original “Mr. Chemainus”. He never failed to recognize the real impetus of the long-term project success - namely the community residents whose tireless volunteer efforts can still be seen today.
Without their dedication and involvement, the project could not have succeeded over the years.
And behind this highly successful leader was Marg, his wife. Diminutive in stature with an indomitable and feisty spirit, Marg was by Al’s side throughout. Their 25 years in Chemainus was marked and fondly remembered by their dedicated service to making Chemainus the best that it could be. They will be missed.
This website is dedicated to Al and Marg, who represented the spirit of volunteerism and community spirit that is Chemainus’s legacy.
Al Johnson: July 23, 1936 - Aug 22, 2006
Marg Johnson: January 30, 1940 - May 26th, 2007