When I was 8, if you'd asked me what stood out in my mind about Uncle Kent, I'd have said "his laugh."
The fact he's "one of the little persons" as we Americans say wouldn't have crossed my mind.In heart, mind and soul Kent's 6 foot 2. And he gets you seeing that 6-foot- 2 person seconds after you meet him.
"You have to get people to look at your personality," he says.
Adds wife Virginia: "Once, at the Hotel Utah, I sat and watched Kent come down the stairs. I thought, `My husband's really a small man.' I was quite surprised."
Kent was the student body president at Davis Junior High in 1955. He served an LDS mission to Hong Kong in 1958 and won a seat on the Clinton City Council.
Today he's an avid golfer, connoisseur of fine restaurants and a purchasing technician for Davis County.
I spent some time with him over the past month. Journalists like priests and psychiatrists can ask questions that the merely curious never can.
And there were things I've always wanted to ask.
Did he know that we nephews used to measure ourselves against him each Thanksgiving to see how much we'd grown?
"No," he laughs, "What a thing to measure yourself against. I hope I was able to feed your ego."
Did he remember singing in the production "All Faces West"?
"That's going back. I don't think I've sung in a choir since the day I missed rehearsal and the director realized the piano wasn't out of tune."
The one thing that kept surfacing in our interviews, however, was Kent's knack for taking negative situations and making them work for him.
As a young missionary he climbed off the plane in Japan and dozens of Japanese people crowded around asking him to autograph their scarves. They thought he was a midget wrestler on tour.
He signed his name "Elder Johnston" and wrote notes about the LDS Church.
As a grown man he was asked to play Peter Rabbit in a local stage show.
"After my performance," he says, "parents had no trouble getting their kids to wear pajamas with feet in them."
When he couldn't keep up with his peers on the softball diamond, he took up coaching. The team went to the all-church tournament.
When he took up golf, he had to saw off the shafts. That meant he could add weight to the heads of his woods. Today he clicks drives out there with the best.
Those are fun, upbeat anecdotes about the man. That's how he likes to be seen. But, needless to say, Uncle Kent's had to weather storms few people see. He doesn't mask those hurts, doesn't pretend they didn't happen. He looks for perspective. Kent Johnston is the family philosopher.
Let me give you a "capsule" biography; a look at the life and times of my "Most Unforgetable Character."
According to Johnston family folklore, when Kent was born the doctor said: `This little boy is in for a lot of suffering. I'm tempted just to let him go. But I have to meet my maker, too."
Kent's five brothers all strapping farm boys remember him crying in his room because of the teasing and insults. Yet, though he was half the size of his brothers, he got into more trouble than any two. He'd forget and leave a deck of "girlie playing cards" in the car when his mother had to shuttle around important guests. He put driving pedals and devices on the family car so he could get around, then installed an ear-popping "Ooga Horn." Family, neighbors and Clinton pedestrians jumped for months.
One of my earliest memories is Kent as middle linebacker in the annual Johnston Cousins Thanksgiving Day football game. He was like a bowling ball, a human fire hydrant. Two-hands-below-the-waist touch football was his game.
I remember cousin Lyle (who went on to lead the nation in punting at Weber State College) coming back to the huddle. I was the quarterback.
"Kent's been saving us on defense," he said. "Complete a pass to him."
You didn't argue with Lyle.
I threw 12 passes. All incomplete. Hitting Kent with a pass was like hitting a fly with a pea shooter.
Kent dated as he grew older. He'd take his dates to Lagoon, concerts, places full of people so he could watch their reaction.
"I learned early that it's more of a challenge for someone to be with me than for me to be with them," he says.
He asked a couple of girls to marry him.
"They said the odds were we'd have kids that looked like me," he says today. "They could accept me, but couldn't accept the idea of having a dwarf child. It hurt very much.
"But then, I figured you kids needed at least one old bachelor uncle."
Kent met Virginia 12 years ago at a church social. He walked up behind her, leaned on her shoulder bag, and gave her a Cheshire Cat grin.
"Something told me right then I'd end up marrying him," Virginia says.
If some girls had been uncomfortable being in public with Kent, Virginia had another problem.
"I couldn't get any time alone with him," she says. "He knows everybody and we could never go to a quiet restaurant without someone coming up and talking to him."
Because Virginia brought a couple of children to the marriage, Kent's now a grandfather.
"Getting married made me feel like a peer with people my age," he says. "I'd begun to feel like a little mascot of sorts in social situations. And being a grandfather lets me communicate with anybody and everybody."
Because he's come at life with a unique problem, Kent's a student of humanity. He enjoys playing the amateur psychologist. He can see ulterior motives in most behavior. He's also waxed rather philosophical about life.
"My father was always a funny person, full of one-liners," he says, "so the out-going part of me came from my family life. I've always loved to perform. And I like to be in charge of things.
"I never talk about what I can't do, but what I can do. `Independence' is a favorite word among `little people."'
He smiles. "Besides," he says, "if I stand on a Crisco can at the market to reach the top shelf and dent the can, or accidently leave a cinder block in a phone booth where I make a phone call, people always blame the neighbor kids."
If he could, would Kent make himself 6-feet tall?
"I don't think I could handle it," he says. "I just wouldn't be me. I've spent my life taking different avenues. Instead of the star on the team, I've been the coach. I couldn't go on hikes with the Boy Scouts, so I taught Primary. I've built my life with what I've had to work with."
Years ago a young woman gave birth to a dwarf baby at Holy Cross Hospital. A Catholic priest came to Kent to ask for any advice he could pass on to the young mother. Kent didn't hesitate a heartbeat.
"Tell her to raise that little boy, love him, and treat him exactly the way she'd treat any little boy."
That's Uncle Kent.
When Hollywood made the movie "Little Big Man," they obviously got the wrong guy.
To this day I don't know how tall he is. I only know there's never been a time when he hasn't been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with me and look me square in the eye.