Freeway signs go up in honor of fallen officer , former resident

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Ruth and Steve Martin, founders of the Canyon Lake Bible Club and members of Crimson Crown Music Ministry, were privileged to take part in a special event last weekend honoring Ruth’s late husband, Don Johnston, a former officer with the El Monte Police Department.

Last Saturday, April 30, the Rio Hondo Police Academy Class 202 held a five-mile “Pride Run” through the streets of El Monte in memory of Officer Don Johnston. Leading the run was Johnston’s son (Ruth’s stepson), Eric Johnston, and Eric’s son, Donald R. Johnston, named for his fallen grandfather. People from the community, friends and family members also joined in the run.

Ruth and Steve were escorted by a motorcade of El Monte Police vehicles so that Ruth could videotape the runners. The Pride Run concluded with the unveiling of Don Johnston’s new memorial highway sign, erected at the borders of El Monte on the I-10 freeway.

The event was hosted by El Monte Police Chief David Reynoso, and organized by the Rio Hondo Police Academy and Eric Johnston, a recruit training officer at the academy from which his father also graduated.

A5-PIC-3-Academy-Memorial-run-posterRuth says, “The highlight of the event for me was being granted permission to pray over Class 202. Academy Instructors should be very proud of the amazing job that they’ve done training our future protectors, the men and women in blue. Rio Hondo Police Academy Class 202 is the best of the best, a fine group of men and women who will be answering the call to protect and serve our cities!”

The lovely and talented Ruth Martin, whom many have met when she and Steve perform with Crimson Crown at the annual Prayer Breakfast at the Lodge and other occasions, doesn’t often talk about her late husband, who lived in Canyon Lake prior to his death in November 2002. But on this occasion, she is proud to tell his story.

Ruth and Don met at Calvary Chapel West Covina in late 1987 and were married on September 1, 1989. Just five months after they were married, on January 29, 1990, Don was shot in the neck while responding to a bank call where he protected an elderly patron by pushing him out of the line of fire.

The 9mm bullet severed Don’s vocal chord nerve and struck his T1-T2 vertebrae, causing paralysis from the chest down. Johnston was told he would never walk or talk again. Over the next year, he worked hard to regain the use of his hands and arms.

Ruth says she and Don spent the majority of their first year of marriage in a hospital. Following his release, one of the first things he did was obtain a new driver’s license to operate a new hand-controlled handicapped equipped van.

Once this was accomplished, he reported back to duty as a detective, first in missing persons, then interviewing and hiring new recruits. When a helicopter observer job opened up, he applied and won the position.

Ruth says, “He was able to patrol the streets from the sky and caught a lot of bad guys from up there!”

A5-PIC-8-Don-business-cardHe also created a program called “Strive” and traveled by helicopter to schools all over the city, encouraging kids to never give up on their hopes and dreams when faced with difficult challenges. “The kids were amazed and inspired by his story and dedication to them,” says Ruth.

On one occasion, he heard about a local El Monte family with four children suffering from a rare and debilitating disease. They had an old van, and the only way they could get their children to school was to physically lift each one of them in their heavy electric wheelchairs into the van. Half the time the van wouldn’t start.

According to Ruth, Don contacted the wheelchair lift company that had just hired him for an ad campaign. He asked if they would consider donating an automatic wheelchair ramp lift to this family instead of paying him for the ad campaign. They agreed.

He then contacted a local dealership and told them the family’s story. The dealership decided to bless the family with a brand new van. Once the van conversion was completed, the family was presented the new handicapped equipped van at a ceremony held for them by the El Monte Police Department. “There wasn’t a dry eye to be found,” says Ruth.

She adds, “There were so many amazing things that Don did for the community that he loved and served. I could fill up many pages with accounts of his big heart and generosity. The people of El Monte reciprocated that love and honored him at many events.”

Don received numerous awards following the shooting incident. They included the Medal of Valor, Congressional Award, Silver Star for Bravery, Legion of Honor Award, Certificate of Valor from the office of the Attorney General, Hero of the Week from the Los Angeles Dodgers, 1990 Police Officer of the Year from R.G. Canning, 1990 State Hero of the Year from the 40/8 Veterans Group, 1990 State Hero of the Year Certificate of Recognition from the California State Legislature, 1990 State Hero of the Year Certificate of Recognition from the California State Senate and Person of the Week from KABC Channel 7 News.

He also received Letters of Commendation from Governor George Deukmejian, the city of South El Monte, county of Los Angeles and Governor Pete Wilson.

The city of El Monte created a new award in his honor, the Don Johnston Man of Courage Award. Because of his work with school children and his example of bravery, he also received a Golden Apple Award from the El Monte School District.

In 2002 Don was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that was determined to be a result of the shooting. He regretfully handed in his resignation and asked Ruth to find a home on a lake, preferably where he could fish from his backyard. Ruth remembered Canyon Lake from a previous visit and called a real estate agent.

They purchased a home in the spring, remodeled it and moved in on the 4th of July weekend. While waiting for a handicap accessible ramp to be built, family members and fellow officers carried Don down the steps that led to the lake.

“They would enjoy hours at a time on the lake, laughing and fishing and telling old patrol stories,” says Ruth.

“Sadly, Don’s health quickly declined and our house on the lake was full of people coming to pay their last respects to the amazing hero who had touched all of our lives. Don took his last breath at our beautiful lake home on November 22, 2002.”

He was given a police officer’s funeral with the closing of a freeway to allow a huge motorcade of police cars and motorbikes from all over the state of California. Various fire companies also were in attendance. Upon reaching Rose Hills Cemetery, the ceremony included a riderless horse, followed by a 21-gun salute. Various police departments from California sent their police helicopters to form a graveside missing-man flyover.

“Don was loved and mourned by many,” says Ruth.

Ruth says she went into a deep depression after her husband’s death. They had been inseparable for more than 13 years. “! I told a friend and fellow police officer of Don’s that I was done, my heart was shattered and I would never be able to love anyone else ever again,” says Ruth. “He told me that he would be praying for me and asking God to restore my heart and bring someone into my life that would fill my heart with joy and love once again.”

“God was listening to my friend’s prayer because, in 2004, I met Steve Martin a wonderful and godly man who brought my heart back from the dead. We were married three months later and will be celebrating out 12th year as husband and wife. My life has been restored and filled with joy, laughter and love ever since!”

Ruth concludes, “My life has been a roller-coaster ride. I have walked the desolate valleys and stood victorious on the mountain peaks; but one thing I can say for certain, God has been with me every step of the way. He has sustained me and given me the strength to continue on and to share my faith with others. God is good. Yes, even in the midst of my darkest storms, God has been ever present, encouraging me to trust in Him and take the next step of faith. He is my Rock!”

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Sharon Rice