Columbus, Ohio USA

Giving Consciously and Creatively
Neighborhood Foundation honors Zoe and Jack Johnstone

January 2008
by Jennifer Hambrick

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Jack and Zoe. No signs of slowing down. © PHOTO/ Darren Carlson

Ask someone about what Jack and Zoe Johnstone have contributed to the Short North and the greater Columbus community and you might well get a response like this one: “They inspire people to do more,” said Dan Koch, owner of Columbus Eyeworks and a past president of the Short North Business Association. “Zoe says, ‘Make something happen if it can happen.’ They define community leadership.”

Which may explain why the Johnstones are the recipients of the 2007 Short North Foundation Community Leadership Award. For the 28 years they’ve lived in Columbus, the Johnstones have developed an international company in the heart of the Short North and, through volunteerism and generous financial support, have helped transform the area from a den of iniquity to a Columbus destination. And they show no signs of slowing down.

Putting Down Roots
When Jack and Zoe Johnstone moved to Columbus from California in 1979, Ohio’s capital was at the nadir of its existence as a Midwestern cowtown. Columbus paled by comparison with more culturally sophisticated Cleveland and Cincinnati, and the Short North dealt in sex, drugs and violence, not the modern art and hip couture that are the district’s stock-in-trade today.

But Jack Johnstone saw possibilities here, beginning with the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. in musicology at the Ohio State University. Zoe Johnstone, an organist and composer by profession, worked a church job while Jack was in graduate school. Music fed their souls and paid the bills.

After finishing his dissertation on medieval liturgical chant in 1984, Jack took a job with the International Trade Division of the Ohio Department of Development. There he and colleague Robert Downey talked about starting their own international company, a dream that would materialize some two years later after they left their current positions.

In 1986, Jack and Zoe Johnstone moved from Worthington to 50 E. Lincoln St. At that time, Jack said, the building was “old, vacant, dilapidated,” but it had good bones. They turned to Sandy Wood for help with the property – the beginning of long association with the Short North developer. The building was successfully renovated by the Wood Companies, and Jack and Zoe lived in a suite of rooms on the second floor, turning the rest of their home into a small hotel – 50 Lincoln – comprising nine rooms. Another entrepreneurial streak emerged that year when Zoe started Interiors! In the Short North, a design firm specializing in kitchens, floors and windows; and, finally, plans for their company, Johnstone Downey Finance International, were formulated. Zoe recalls that the company actually came to fruition the following year, “born in the laundry room” of 50 Lincoln in 1987.

Within only a few years, however, the Johnstones’ hotel was sold, but Johnstone Downey Finance International lived on, though with a different name. Today International Risk Consultants is a truly global enterprise, headquartered on High Street in the Short North and operated through offices worldwide.

The Johnstones with Andrew Lidgus at the unveiling of the In Dreams Again sculpture
at Poplar Plaza, a pocket park in the Short North, May 2005.

Growing Where They’re Planted
Since becoming residents and business owners in the Short North during the 1980s, Jack and Zoe Johnstone have helped pull their neighborhood up by the bootstraps by contributing service and funds to many Short North organizations.

“They have done so much for the community,” said current Short North Foundation President Steven Weed. “Everyone really appreciates everything that Jack and Zoe have done. (The 2007 Community Leadership Award is) really recognition of everything they’ve done over the last 20 years.”

As president of the Short North Business Association (SNBA) in the late 1980s, Zoe Johnstone began a long affiliation with an organization whose work has helped the Short North flourish over the last quarter century. Johnstone’s SNBA contributions continue to have a ripple effect throughout the community. As a member of the SNBA’s Panhandling Committee, she supported the association’s 2005 “Real Change, Not Spare Change” campaign by funding a fleet of A-frame sandwich boards strategically placed around the Short North and encouraging passers-by to contribute to agencies that can help the homeless get off the street. Johnstone hoped the neighborhood would give people in need a hand up, not a hand out.

“We helped in this attempt to inform visitors to the Short North that here we do support legitimate agencies that help true homeless/helpless people,” Johnstone said.

When Johnstone was not serving the needy in the Short North, she was helping to get another area service organization on a secure footing. In 2000, she began the first of two terms on the inaugural board of the Short North Neighborhood Foundation. In this capacity she helped steer the fledgling organization along a course that would enable it to serve the needs of all of the civic organizations that had popped up around the Short North.

“It was initially trying to get a handle on what the foundation should be about, what should be the business of the foundation,” she said. “Figuring that out is a process, because when you call yourself a foundation you have fiscal responsibilities and you have to continually define what’s needed. It’s the other Short North organizations that create the agenda for the Short North Neighborhood Foundation. And it was a time (when) every organization in the Short North had felt that it had to watch out for itself. When you have this sort of competition among seven organizations, it was a real challenge to sit them all down at one table and create a joint vision of what would be possible by joining forces on some level.”

The Johnstones also created, in 2000, the Short North Neighborhood Endowment Fund at the Columbus Foundation. It was set up so other people could contribute to it to make things happen in the neighborhood.

“One of the things that I saw as a board member was, if we’re going to be a foundation, then we’d better establish some sort of a fund so that we can be giving grants,” Zoe Johnstone said.

The endowment recently awarded its first grant to the Italian Village Society to help fund the installation of four bike racks in Italian Village.

Jack and Zoe Johnstone donated Andrew Lidgus' obelisk, In Dreams Again,
and the café tables, chairs and planters that now stand on Poplar Plaza.
©PHOTO/ See Graham 2006

Building on improvements that Short North organizations have brought about in the area over the last two decades, Zoe was among those who responded to the need to fill in blighted areas along the area’s High Street corridor. The concept for pocket parks – tiny urban green spaces containing public artworks – was born, and Johnstone embraced it. She helped raise roughly $133,000 to build the first three pocket parks: Poplar Plaza, Greenwood Park and Millay Park. She and her husband donated Andrew Lidgus’ obelisk, In Dreams Again, and the café tables, chairs and planters that now stand on Poplar Plaza.

“(The Johnstones) did a lot to make that public space happen, and that really was the first public space,” said Dan Koch, who served as president of the SNNF while Zoe Johnstone was a foundation board member. “It really contributed to the neighborhood.”

Zoe says building pocket parks and completing other projects in the Short North has happened with the help of a mysterious energy she feels makes the neighborhood the dynamic place it is, and which she’s happy to encourage.

“In this neighborhood, things happen when they’re supposed to happen, without effort,” Johnstone said. “Everybody works very hard, but when something really gets accomplished, it seems as if it’s without effort. What we do with our money is, we fund energy. It’s been continual building, continual creating, continual dialogue, continual energy.”

And, for the Johnstones, continued commitment to the Short North pocket parks. The couple have given $5,000 to fund the landscaping at Chase Park, the green space currently nearing construction at the corner of High and Lincoln.

“Jack and I did Chase Park to honor our parents,” Zoe said. “The Poplar Plaza is our garden. We learned how to grow where we’re planted. We’re not from here, but we grew here, so that was an appropriate thing for us to do. And we feel, also, because we don’t have a garden, this (park) is our garden. When you come here and you don’t have your own piece of land, then one thing to do is to contribute to the green space that exists.”

Zoe Johnstone remains committed to other urban green space projects, including seeing the Buttles Gateway beautification project to fruition and helping to devise plans for a new pocket park on High Street in front of the Salon Lofts shopping center. And although no firm plans for additional gardens yet exist, Johnstone also has recently begun to consider turning other places green.

“We need to go up,” Zoe said. “We think it’s time to do roof gardens and green spaces on top.”

She also thinks about other things going up in the Short North. When she and her husband, both longtime supporters of the North Market, learned about a campaign to construct a new bell tower for the market’s historic bell, they swooped in to help.

“They’ve been very supportive of that program and have contributed significantly,” North Market Executive Director David Wible said. “They are loyal to the neighborhood and the local community and the market. They’re the kind of people who have made the market succeed over the years.”

Wible says the market has raised about half of the $80,000 it needs to build the bell tower, and that it will ramp up its fundraising campaign in 2008. North Market Director of Marketing Mary Martineau says the market will return to the tradition of ringing the bell every day at the beginning and end of business once the bell has a tower to hang in.

“Like many things in our neighborhood, this is something a lot of people want, and so we want to help make it happen,” Zoe said.

Reaping Benefits for Everyone
Sadly, everywhere there are people in need, and the Johnstones have supported many ventures that reach well beyond the Short North.

Zoe Johnstone has contributed annually to the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio, an organization dedicated to effecting positive social change for women and girls, since the fund’s founding in 2002. Her gift to the fund’s 2006 Annual Campaign was made in honor of the women who have been catalysts in developing the Short North arts district, Women’s Fund Development Officer Joanna Helon said.

Stephen Paulus, a renowned composer who was commissioned to do a piece for the 2006-07 installment of the Johnstone Woodwind Master Series the Flute, with Zoe.

“I believe sometimes women forget that we have power and the Women’s Fund provides opportunities to both remind us and to communicate it to younger women,” Johnstone said.

The Johnstones also have returned to their roots as musicians and given significant financial support to classical music in Columbus. They have been the inspiration and financial support for initiatives with Ohio State University’s School of Music. In 2000, they established the Johnstone Award for Excellence in Musicology as an endowment fund for the School of Music. The award gives $2,000 each year to an Ohio State musicology graduate student selected by School of Music faculty.

“The poor musicology area never had an award for anything,” Zoe said, recalling her husband’s days as an OSU musicology graduate student. “They didn’t even have money to support scholarly research. When Jack would have to go to a conference and read a paper, which is a great honor, the university never had any support for that. We couldn’t even get $10 to pay for gas. We thought over the years, if we ever get a couple of dollars together we’d like to do something.”

The Johnstones continue to give money to support Ohio State’s Contemporary Music Festival. According to OSU professor of theory and composition Don Harris, their contributions to Ohio State help underwrite the costs of bringing a major composer to campus each year for the festival.

As another effort to jump-start the Columbus new music scene, the Johnstones have established the Johnstone Fund for New Music at the Columbus Foundation.

“There is not enough new music here, and we really feel strongly that the community is not doing anything to bring fans of new music out of the woodwork,” Zoe Johnstone said. “We feel strongly now that that’s what we want to encourage. There is not so much contemporary music out there after 1950 written for full orchestra, so the orchestra is sort of condemned to playing works before 1950.”

Grants from the Johnstone Fund for New Music will go to support, among other things, commissioned works for performance in Central Ohio. Currently there is a commission out that will be completed for the Upper Arlington Civic Orchestra.

The Johnstones also hope their Fund for New Music will support the composition of new works for woodwind players, as one aspect of the Johnstone Woodwind Master Series, established in 2006 at the OSU School of Music. Jack Johnstone, a bassoonist with the Upper Arlington Community Orchestra, and Zoe worked with OSU woodwind faculty to create the series in an effort to develop the School of Music’s woodwind area, and to encourage student composers to compose innovative woodwind music. The series consists of a five-year cycle, with each year devoted to one of five woodwind instruments. For each year of the five-year cycle, the Johnstones’ gift sponsors on-campus master classes and performances by a distinguished woodwind artist, a commissioned new work by an established composer featuring a woodwind instrument, and a student composition prize of $500. The Johnstones have established an endowment that will allow the series to continue beyond the first five years.

Zoe and Jack in costume (right), participating in "Susato on the Scioto," 1980.
Jack received his Ph.D. in musicology four years later.

Daniel Perttu, assistant professor of music theory and composition at Louisiana Lafayette University, won the student composers prize in the 2006 Woodwind Masters Series while a doctoral student at Ohio State. Later, as an established composer, he competed and was selected and specially commissioned to compose a work for clarinet, violin and piano for the 2008 Woodwind Master Series, which is devoted to the clarinet. The internationally acclaimed Verdehr Trio will be giving the world premiere of Perttu’s composition in Columbus this spring.

“I consider it to be a great honor,” Perttu said. “They certainly did not have to choose me. There are plenty of other composers out there, both generally and also people that Ohio State has had specific experience with. They could have just chosen someone they didn’t know. Also, there are a lot of people out there that they do know. So I consider it to be quite an honor, and I’m very excited to be working on it, and I’m happy to be contributing to the Masters Series in a different capacity this time.”

The Johnstones themselves have made conscious decisions to contribute to Columbus in many capacities over the nearly three decades they’ve lived here.

“Columbus is a place where one person can make a difference,” Zoe said. “The way we do it is by paying attention to and supporting the energy of what is going on around us. We all make a difference every day whether we consciously intend to or whether we do it by default. We’d rather be conscious.”

Zoe and Jack Johnstone have been inspired by and have contributed to the creative energy that characterize the Short North, and which they hope will remain a hallmark of the neighborhood – their neighborhood.

“Our biggest hope is that it will continue to be the place in Central Ohio that supports the growth of ideas, generates energy and provides challenges that only a diverse community can overcome creatively. We love this neighborhood. There’s no happier place to get up in the morning than in this neighborhood. It will continue to grow, it will continue to have its challenges and it’s really fun to be involved in that.”

©2008 Short North Gazette. Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.