Howard Johnston was a born and raised Kentucky farmer in his early 30s when he went back to school to become a land surveyor. After working a few survey jobs here and there, he studied advanced mathematics, drawing and metalwork for two years at the Ohio Mechanics Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, and began looking for a way to jumpstart his career.
“I decided that if I was going to do surveying that I needed to go where the money was,” Johnston says. In spring 1966, he answered an ad from Brighton Engineering looking for land surveyors in Frankfort, Kentucky. “I went to Frankfort on Monday morning; they hired 21 people and, of course, I was one of them.”
Today, Johnston’s resume reads like a cross-county tour of Kentucky’s best survey work — which includes Whites Trailer Park, American Trailer Park, Blueberry Hill in Falmouth, Cool Farm Subdivision, Daniel Boone Parkway and the Brent Spence Bridge. But his most famous gig came in 1989, when he was elected county surveyor for Pendleton County, Kentucky. “Many, many farms, lots, building sites,” he says of the job. “And since the FEMA organization was founded back in the ’60s, I’ve done flood elevations all over Pendleton County.”
At 92, Johnston is the oldest serving elected official in the county and has been county surveyor almost longer than the job has existed. This year Pendleton celebrated his achievement by proclaiming Johnston’s birthday on Feb. 3, Howard Johnston Day.
“His career exemplifies what it means to be devoted to one’s profession. Licensed in 1967, and with 54 years of surveying, he has left his mark on many a boundary line in his part of the world. One just has to wonder, how many steps has he taken?” says Dennis D. Smith, PE, PLS, F. ASCE, F. NSPS, president and CEO of DDS Engineering, PLLC in Bowling Green, Kentucky. “It is said that surveying is the second oldest profession and many believe it is referenced in the Bible in Genesis Chapter 13. Based on that firm biblical foundation and a great historical reference, Howard has set a benchmark high for the rest of us to try to achieve. Knowing Howard has reached this pinnacle in his profession still inspires all of us to ‘cut a little more line, pull that chain taunt, drop another chaining pin, pick up our transit and move on to the next traverse point.’”
As Johnston tells it, he was born Feb. 3, 1929, in a log cabin on a 100-acre farm to a tenant farmer and school teacher. Because his mother was a teacher, he learned at home before going off to public school. “I went to a one-room schoolhouse in second grade,” he remembers. “Then the county brought the schools together.” Healthy helpings of mathematics at home prepared him for his future career in land surveying, but it was farming that put food on the table until then. After marrying his wife, Alta, in 1950, the couple inherited the family farm raised children Billy, Connie and Carolee.
“That was just part of what you did. You know, it was part of our life. What daddy did for a living wasn’t just him doing it. It was the whole family,” remembers Carolee, the youngest of the three. And when her father switched careers, the family switched careers, too.
In 1966, the Kentucky legislature passed an ordinance to create the land surveyor license and grandfather in those qualified to be land surveyors, Johnston explains. “They set up a committee so anybody they felt was qualified could be interviewed and submit their qualifications, and they would OK a license. That amounted to about 1500 land surveyors and engineers,” he remembers. In 1967, Johnston was license no.1041.
“I tried to tell them how to do a DMD, which is a method of multiple mathematical procedures. I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t have the experience, but I knew about it,” Johnston says. “The vice president of Brighton Engineers was on that registration board, and he said to come in Friday night with your papers and stuff from what you’ve done for the week. I will give you some books, and at night when you’re sitting in the motel room, you read those books and you learn how. And that’s how I learned how.”
Johnston, adds, “But that was just a 10 minute interview.” The real work began at home with his family. He built an office for his surveying business, and everyone in the family naturally played a part.
“We grew up on the farm. At one point we raised 21 acres of tobacco. So daddy did some of that, not a 100 percent of it. My brother kind of was like the leader of the farm, if you will, because daddy had a surveying business,” says Carolee. “Mom did all the measuring and don’t get too close to her with the machete, ’cause she was vicious. She was really good with it. And she carried the sledgehammer and did the old fashioned stakes in the ground and the iron pens and the whole nine yards.”
Soon everyone knew that when you called Johnston for a survey, it meant his wife and sometimes his children were coming, too.
“He would be gone six weeks and home eight [weeks]. So we all knew what daddy did because when he was home for those eight weeks, he started doing some little lot surveys and property evaluation surveys for people,” says Carolee. “So us kids would go with him because that was our chance to be with dad because we didn’t see him that often. And then my mom would go with him so it became a family event. We used to call it a picnic every day for lunch because mama would always bring us lunch when we were out in the woods somewhere. And so we always laughed and say, how many people do you know that can have a picnic for lunch every day? And that’s what we did.”
Over Johnston’s more than five decade-long career in the land surveying profession, he’s done a lot more than the average surveyor. His stories cross many cities and state boundaries, including Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois and Indiana — and he’s completed well over 2,000 surveys. But he’s not done yet.
When asked about retiring, he says “I’m never going to completely retire because people who retire just sit down to die.” He is on the 100-year plan.
“Because his mother lived to be 99, and daddy wants to live to be 100,” explains Carolee. “And he laughs with his doctor all the time. The doctor says he’ll buy that warranty because he’s going to make it.”
Almost like a rite of passage, all of Johnston’s grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren have gone surveying with him. Although none of them are land surveyors today, working together as a family is a tradition that continues to bring them closer.
“Families together are better than families apart and going in different ways,” says Carolee. “And I really just think daddy instilled in us all that work ethic. We grew up as a family, and we worked well together. It was just a good life.”
In Kentucky’s land surveying community, Johnston is known as a “surveyor’s surveyor.” He was one of the first presidents to get the Kentucky Association of Professional Surveyors off the ground, and he knows Kentucky like the back of his hand.
In 1997 there was a big flood in the county seat, and the plat cabinets got wiped out. Fortunately, Johnston had done most of the surveys in this rural county for a long time and was able to replace most of the plats from his own records.
On a recent 80-acre parcel survey, the latest surveying technology was no match for Johnston’s sharpened experience, remembers Tom Bushelman, Jr., PLS, of Commonwealth Surveying.
“He was getting well up into his 80s by then and was slowing down a bit. He didn’t want to tackle that sized project by himself,” says Bushelman. “I helped him with all of the latest and greatest robotic technology that I could bring to bear on the project. He recalled a pin he set up by this old locust post back in the ’60s. It was ferociously thick, but he knew it was there. So, I started hacking my way in. Sure enough, there it was.
“On that same project, as we tied into the boundary, he broke out his trusty K&E and a good steel chain. He turned angles, and we pulled that tape as fast as I could get going with a robotic gun. He would reach into his shirt pocket and pull out a calculator and do slope corrections instantly. His front pocket is always swelled out with calculator, scale, pens and pencils of all sorts like a quintessential nerd.” Eternally, a land surveyor.