Keith (J.K.) Johnson

Born: Sydenham Township, Ontario on 09 September 1930

Passed away: Ottawa, Ontario on 13 April 2018

Aged: 87 years

Service Details

In accordance with Keith's wishes he was cremated and no funeral was planned. However, a celebration of his life and work will take place in Ottawa, on Friday May 25th, from 3 to 4:30 PM, in room 2017 of the Dunton Tower, at Carleton University.

As expressions of sympathy, donations may be made to the memorial scholarship established in his name, to be awarded to Carleton University students studying Upper Canadian history. To make a donation contact Carleton University's Chief Advancement Officer: [email protected] or donate directly via the Carleton website at:

The Story

Born in Sydenham Township, Ontario in 1930, James Keith Johnson died unexpectedly from complications of small vessel ischemic brain disease on April 13, 2018. The son of George Milford Johnson & Mary Louise Johnson (nee Fettes), both of Sydenham Township, he was predeceased by his sister Marjorie Woodhouse and his brother Tom.

Keith was the partner, husband and best friend of Dr. Jill Vickers for 49 years; loving father of Mary and Elizabeth “Bobby” Johnson; and Michael H Vickers (Kathryn Gallacher) and Matthew Johnson (Megan Gillis); and affectionate ‘Grampa’ of Alec, Calum, Leo and Miles. He is also survived by his sister-in-law, Marjorie, nieces Nancy (Gashaw Abebe) and Marilyn Plaumann (Heinz), and nephews, Russell and David Johnson (Teresa); nephew Peter Woodhouse (Brenda), and nieces, Kathryn Taylor (Rick), Barbara Fawcett (Rick) and Margaret Hamilton (Bob).

Keith studied history at the University of Toronto, graduating from Victoria College with the Class of 5T3. He then travelled in Europe and England and returned to Canada to work at the CBC in Toronto during the ‘golden age’ of Canadian television. In 1961 he began working for the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa, first as an Archivist, then as Head of the Publications Section, Manuscript Division.

In 1968, Keith began teaching history full-time at Ottawa’s St. Patrick’s College, where he met Jill. He then taught for the rest of his career in Carleton University’s Department of History, specializing in Upper Canadian history and rising to full Professor, where he was a demanding but kind supervisor to many MA and PhD students. Retiring from teaching in 1995 as Emeritus Professor, he continued his research and writing right up until the day he died.

Keith Johnson was honoured with many academic awards and distinctions, including: the Ontario Historical Society’s Cruikshank Medal for Historical Writing (1967), the Canadian Silver Jubilee Medal (1977), the Ontario Historical Society’s Cruikshank Gold Medal for Outstanding Service in the Cause of History in Ontario (1989) and the Canadian Historical Association’s Regional History Certificate of Merit (1994). His most significant contributions to Canadian history include: the Canadian Directory of Parliament, 1867-1967 (1968), Affectionately Yours: The Letters of Sir John A. Macdonald and his Family, 1842-1891 (1969) and the Sir John A Macdonald entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia (1985), Becoming Prominent: Regional Leadership in Upper Canada, 1791-1841 (1989) and In Duty Bound: Men, Women and the State in Upper Canada, 1783-1841 (2014).

Keith was known for his wry humour - infecting his sons with a love of the surrealistic comedy of Monty Python and the Marx Brothers - and for his gentleness, kindness, generosity and humility. He was an enthusiastic supporter of all things Canadian, and in particular, a loyal supporter of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals (which he attended faithfully every year), Canadian literature, and television programmes (notably Slings and Arrows and Murdoch Mysteries), a longtime Toronto Argonauts fan, and an ardent and knowledgeable classical music lover. His daily pleasures included cryptic crossword puzzles, Jeopardy and sharing the quiet humour of the Brit-coms and mysteries with Jill. In retirement, he and Jill became intrepid adventurers, traveling first to the US, Europe and the Baltic, and then to South America, including: Ecuador, Peru, the Amazon, Argentina, Antarctica, Patagonia and Chile.

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From author, James Bacque, via email:
"Hello Jill,
I showed a draft of this passage from my memoirs to Olie some time ago and he amended it. If you think anyone might be interested in this part of Keith's life, please use it however you wish.

I very nearly succeeded in getting out (of the CBC Stage crew) one early morning in Studio One after a long difficult strike and set... The set we were putting up was designed around the pianist Glenn Gould who was going to give a live concert on TV. His famous piano on which he played Bach absolutely accurately, with a taut pitch of feeling and perfect understanding, was delivered in its thick brown piano-blanket to the studio late the evening before. That was a big mistake on someone’s part, which fell onto my shoulders...

I told my friend Olie Johnson on my crew to roll Gould’s piano outside the big trucking doors where nothing could crash down onto it. The night was cool but not freezing, and I figured we would have it back inside in a little while. Eight hours later, after the new set was up and we were lolling about with cigarettes and coffee-poison in paper cups, Olie suddenly remembered the piano, still outside. I panicked because Gould was famously neurasthenic about his precious hands, health, clothes, and piano. Rain had fallen. The piano was wet under its soaked shroud. Heartbroken, I helped to roll it back in, and we wiped it off. I raised the lid and peeped inside. No puddle!

We clocked out and I went home in fear and shame, sure that Gould’s sensitive fingers would detect the cold and humidity as soon as he tugged off his long woollen gloves. I was out of a job and Gould was out of a piano. The show would probably be cancelled because of course he could not play a piano that had been outside all one cold wet night, and he could play no other.

That morning, I was told later, Gould came in, sat at the piano, unfurled his gloves, flexed his fingers and played without comment.

Fifty years later--fifty years of minor guilt and also of dining out on the story--I got an e-mail from my friend Olie, who said: 'My recollection is that you were indeed the Crew Chief of record on the night in question so technically the piano was your responsibility but I was on your crew, so I, and/or whoever else was, should have reminded you it was there.

As I recall the set we were putting up was a fiendishly complicated one by Rudi Dorn, which took us into (real) overtime and we just never got round to the piano. I certainly felt no guilt about it then or since but I do remember taking some pleasure in getting away with something big.'

For me, guilt and fear, for Olie, the thought of getting away with something big..."

Michael Vickers


From David Moorman, Senior Advisor, Policy and Planning, Canada Foundation for Innovation, via email:
"Thank you for letting me know Michael, and please accept my condolences.

Your step father was a superb professor, indeed one of the very best I ever had. He was always kind, generous and willing to engage meaningfully in any intellectual endeavour.

More than anyone else, he taught me how to research, write and understand history. Indeed, thanks to Keith, I went on to complete a Ph.D in an area of Canadian history he encouraged me to pursue."

Michael Vickers


From Malcolm MacKinnon, UofT, Victoria College-South House roommate and fellow 5T3 graduate, via email:
"Dear Jill,
I really appreciate the chance to see the quotes from his students. I was glad to see that several of them referred to the sentence in the obituary about his ”wry humour, gentleness, kindness, generosity, and humility.” Those words are excellent descriptors of the Keith that I remember.

One of the pictures I sent is of the gentle initiation stunt of cleaning City Hall with a toothbrush. We were told to put our pj’s on over our clothes and were escorted by streetcar to City Hall where the Telegram reporter was waiting. After the Photo Op we were official South House members, a membership that brought us many close friendships over the years. I have been trying to remember why it was that we all called him Olie. I haven’t been successful.

When I picture Olie, I think of him as wearing a warm, dark red bathrobe sitting in his third floor room drinking tea and offering tea to the friends who came by his open door. A high point for me was Shakespeare spotting (opening the book at random and reading until somebody identified the play and the speaker). I was taking Math and Physics with virtually no humanities. I got my liberal education from Olie and our other friends. Olie had a repertoire of quotes (e.g. Alexander Hamilton “Your people, sir, is a great beast”) which he quoted whenever they were relevant to the conversation.

One thing we had in common was that both of us were fans of “Vic ’n Sade” and listened to it when we were younger. By the time we met at South House, “Vic ’n Sade” was off the air, but we quoted to each other the sayings of Uncle Fletcher (eg. “Rishagin Fishagin from Sishagin, Michigan. He was employed as an armed guard at the Ohio State Home for the Agreeable. Later died.”)

He listened regularly to Elwood Glover, the CBC disk jockey in the hour before dinner and I often listened with him. We all had radios, but no radio licenses. We occasionally had a few beers at the King Cole Room in the basement of the Park Plaza Hotel (where anybody who looked like a college student was assumed to be over 21) and on other occasions went to hear the Calvin Jackson trio at the Plaza Room. Olie introduced me to Dixieland Jazz and we went together to the Colonial Tavern when a Dixieland group was playing.

At the end of sophomore year, I went to New York for the summer where I lived in the YMCA and worked as an actuarial student at Met Life. The real attraction for me was to see all the shows on Broadway. When I returned to school in the fall, I began a campaign to get Olie to come with me to New York the following summer. I succeeded. His English and History skills were not as marketable as my record of passing actuarial exams, but he quickly signed up for Social Security and got a job working in a warehouse where his main activity was to stamp the words “Property of the New York City School System” in thousands of copies of “Dick, Jane and Spot.” He was a keen observer of the conversation of his fellow workers and took great pains to make sure that none of them found out that he was one of those "college pricks” that they so despised.

We shared a small apartment on West 21st Street and I commuted to Newark where I worked for Prudential as a summer actuarial student. We occasionally cooked, but ate often at the Automat. We listened to Gene Shepherd on the radio in the evenings. We saw all the shows. A great summer.

In Senior year, I was the Drama Editor of The Varsity and occasionally I assigned Olie to write a review. At the risk of impairing his reputation for gentleness, I quote this excerpt from his review of a UC Players Guild production: “Gammer Gurton’s Needle is a very, very old play which has by no means improved with age. The over obvious comic situation, the crude slapstick and especially the awkward rhymed couplets in which the play is written, present a monumental challenge to any director. Charlotte Holmes obviously threw in the towel early and let her charges go their several ways. The result, if lacking in comedy, was not without a certain pathos.” This generated quite a few Letters to the Editor which is always good for circulation.

After college, we both went to Europe before starting work in Toronto but on different time tables. Olie traveled with George Julian, Al Cairns and Murray Dillon. I visited Paris with the four of them for a couple of weeks in September (all those little restaurants!) and when they rented a house in London I spent a lot of time there. In January I began my job in Prudential’s Canadian Head Office in Toronto and rented a room in Rosedale. When Olie returned to Toronto in June, 1954, and began work as a stagehand at CBC-TV, he and I found a comfortable two-bedroom apartment at 177 Roxborough St. East and moved in. We did more cooking than we had in New York. When I moved out a year later to get married, Fred Euringer took my place and Olie stayed on for quite awhile. While we were living on Roxborough St., we frequently met Olie’s sister, Marge, for a beer in the evening. She was working for a company that processed sludge. When Marge married Harvey Woodhouse in the spring of 1955, Olie and I went to the wedding. He sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and I accompanied him on the piano.

Olie was my Best Man on June 18, 1955, and in proposing a toast he quoted Charles II’s dying words about Nell Gwynne, “Don’t let Nellie starve.” I have always kept those words in mind.

After our honeymoon, Betty and I lived in an apartment in New York City for a couple of years. Olie made several trips to New York in that time period and always came to dinner. When we were visiting my parents in Guelph, he and George came to visit us there. A few years later, Olie and Francie and the twins spent a weekend with us in our house in New Jersey.

After that, we had occasional letters and phone calls. A great thing about Olie was that, if I called him suddenly on the phone, conversation was as easy as if we had been talking regularly for years. We didn’t see each other again until a “South House reunion” staged by Larry Lundy and Elizabeth Julian in 2008. That was a fun time for us and led to two similar get-togethers at Hart House later on.

We're very sorry that we won’t be able to attend the Memorial at Carleton, but our thoughts will be with you and the children."

Michael Vickers


"Olie" (aka Keith) and George visit Malcolm and his wife, Betty, in Guelph, 1956.

Michael Vickers shared a photo.


The 5T3 gang at a Vic College-South House reunion in 2008.

Michael Vickers shared a photo.


"Olie" (aka Keith) as best man at Malcolm's wedding in 1955.

Michael Vickers shared a photo.


Malcolm & "Olie" (aka Keith) on graduation day from UofT with the Class of 5T3.

Michael Vickers shared a photo.


A gentle initiation to Vic College, South House, scrubbing the steps of old Toronto City Hall with toothbrushes.

Michael Vickers shared a photo.


Don and Ella Beer donated in memory of Keith (J.K.) Johnson

May 11, 2018


From Harald von Riekhoff, via email:
"Dear Michael:
Thank you so much for writing. I would be grateful if you could let me know when you you decide to hold a memorial celebration for Keith's family and friends. I would very much like to attend if I am still in Ottawa at that time. I just sent my donation. I think it is magnificent idea to set up a scholarship in Keith's name for students who are interested in Upper Canada's history. I remember you as a little boy and I knew your father Michael Sr. very well.


Michael Vickers