JOHNSTON RIDGE — Though his oft-quoted words — "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” — signaled the start of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, little has been made public about the personal life of volcanologist David A. Johnston.
That is, until Saturday, the 39th anniversary of his death and the release of the first comprehensive biography on the man, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who perished in the volcano’s fury on the morning of May 18, 1980
Chicago-based author Melanie Holmes shares Johnston’s life story in her book, “A Hero on Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston.”
While it touches on Johnston’s iconic comparison of the smoking and bulging mountain to a “keg of dynamite (with) the fuse lit,” and his “Vancouver, Vancouver. This is it!” radio transmission just as the volcano began to erupt, the biography covers more ground than any previous piece on Johnston. Holmes documents the volcanologist’s childhood, career journey and death, as well as his legacy.
“The more I researched this man’s life, I found how many people had taken liberties with his story,” said Holmes in a short lecture at the Johnston Ridge Observatory Saturday. “This (biography) is based on people who knew him from the time he was a boy.”
According to Holmes’ account, Johnston survived several natural disaster before losing his life on Mount St. Helens. When he was a high school senior, Johnston watched as a “killer tornado” ripped through his hometown in Oak Lawn, Illinois.
Nine years later in 1976 — and in what likely fueled his interest in studying active volcanoes — Johnston survived three nights on the flank of Alaska’s Mount St. Augustine while the mountain was in an eruptive phase.
Johnston started studying geology by chance. He switched to the field while he was in college studying photojournalism. A geology 101 class sparked his interest, Holmes said.
“Like tectonic plates, something inside him shifted when he took a geology class,” Holmes writes in the book. “Two plates converged and journalism was subducted. Dave switched his degree focus and set about becoming a geologist. The shift fit Dave’s likes and dislikes.”
He entered the field at a time when little was known about volcanoes, Holmes said.
“Volcanology was still a very young science,” Holmes said, noting that the first time the federal government officially funded volcano research in its budget was 1968, when Dave would have been 19 years old. He died just 11 years later, at the age of 30.
But in that short time, Johnston help advance the field with his focused study on volcanic gases. Measuring concentrations of sulfur, carbon dioxide and other gases can help volcanologists estimate whether there is magma present in a volcano, and how close to the surface it is.
Carolyn Driedger, a fellow USGS scientist who studied Mount St. Helens, said Johnston was a “pioneer” with his research. And scientists have only learned more since his passing.
“If Dave were here today (on the anniversary), he would be thrilled,” Driedger said. “He would be just astounded with the progress we’ve made.”
Driedger met Johnston just one night before he died in the 1980 eruption. Though she didn’t know him for a long time, she said Johnston was the kind of person “I wanted to get to know better.” She credits him for saving her life after he discouraged her from staying the night of May 17, 1980, on what is now Johnston Ridge. He was there to monitor the volcano for the USGS.
Driedger recounted that Johnston wanted to have as few people on the mountain that night because there was “a chance the ridge isn’t safe.” Hours later, his feeling proved to be right.
Holmes said she started writing the biography in 2015 after receiving a blessing from Johnston’s sister and her close personal friend, Pat Johnston. As far as Holmes knew, no other author had earned the family’s permission to dive deeply into David Johnston’s life because “their family was famously private,” she said. (The Daily News in 2000 did an extensive report on Johnston’s life based in part on interviews with his parents.)
“It was sort of by a fluke,” said Holmes, who has known Pat Johnston since 1986. Johnston’s son had just left for college to studying writing, and Holmes suggested her friend’s son write about his uncle, the famed volcanologist.
“Then Pat said three words that changed my life: ‘Why don’t you?’ ” said Holmes, also the author of the 2014 book “The Female Assumption.”
Though her title called Johnston a hero, Holmes said she was intentional about using “a” as her article.
“He’s not ‘the’ hero, he’s ‘a’ hero,” Holmes said. “I think there are many heroes. … This man (Johnston) overcame so many obstacles, as we all do.” To explain her point, she referenced a quote by New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer that she included in the introduction for the book: “We are all ordinary, we are all spectacular. We are all shy. We are all bold. We are all heroes. We are all helpless. It just depends on the day.”
Driedger said the biography highlights how scientists like Johnston are “real people.”
“Dave was a hero and a scientist,” Driedger said. “But he was also a human being with the same challenges and triumphs as the rest of us.”
She added that the book shows how “Mount St. Helens still fascinates,” even four decades after its eruption. And now the public has a new installment in the story that’s “long overdue.”
“This biography is going to show Mount St. Helens to the public in a new way, through the eyes of someone who worked there,” Driedger said. “That’s never been written about before. … And it helps show Dave as a whole person.”