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Anne & Bill Johnston

Bill JohnstonWhile vacationing in Ireland in October 2008, Anne Johnston became concerned about dramatic changes in the behavior of her husband, Bill. She immediately called her Northwestern-based physician, who advised Mrs. Johnston to bring Bill to Northwestern Memorial Hospital's emergency department as soon as possible. Landing at Chicago's O'Hare Airport days later, the couple dropped off their bags at their downtown home and headed to the nearby hospital. 

Diagnostic tests revealed Mr. Johnston had a glioblastoma — an aggressive brain tumor — and within hours, the neurosurgery team had him prepped for emergency surgery. "It was that fast," recalls Mrs. Johnston. "His tumor started hemorrhaging in the ER." 

From that point forward the retired Mr. Johnston, the former president and chief operating officer of Morton International, would battle his cancer with the help of brain tumor experts at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Most notably, neurologist Sean A. Grimm, MD, and radiation oncologist Maryanne Marymount, MD, impressed the Johnstons with their expertise, dedication, and compassion. Remarks Mrs. Johnston, "Physicians and staff treated us like people, and everyone knew our names. We didn't feel like we were just another number." Mrs. Johnston also appreciated Dr. Grimm's willingness to reach out to colleagues at other medical centers when the Johnston family sought additional information about treatment strategies and options. 

Although confident he was receiving the best of care, Mr. Johnston knew he had a difficult road ahead of him. A man who often turned his ideas into action, he immersed himself in learning as much about cancer research, especially the work of Northwestern neurosurgeon Kenji Muro, MD, whose interests include developing novel therapeutics and understanding the molecular biology of brain tumors. Before Mr. Johnston passed away one year after his initial diagnosis, he and Mrs. Johnston made plans to support brain tumor research within the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute through a generous bequest commitment of $500,000. In January of 2010, Unitrin, a financial services provider, further honored Mr. Johnston's memory by contributing $10,000 to the Institute's research efforts. Mr. Johnston had been a longtime member of Unitrin's Board of Directors. 

"If my dad believed in an organization or cause, he wanted to be the one to help improve it," describes his daughter, Jennifer L. Tavrides. "He had the same attitude about his cancer. He recognized what Northwestern had done for him and he wanted to support research there so that other brain tumor patients could benefit from new treatments and cures in the future." 

Mr. Johnston's desire to "pay it forward" and help others were values that he held dear, according to his son, William E. Johnston III. "My father was a giving man," he says, "who always stressed hard work, education, and continual learning." 

While undergoing cancer treatment, Mr. Johnston continued to live life to his fullest; he and Mrs. Johnston traveled several times to enjoy their second home in Megève, a small village in the French Alps. An avid skier, Mr. Johnston had also loved sailing and had just raced from Chicago to Mackinaw Island the summer before he became ill. 

"Bill had a fairly good quality of life until the very end," says Mrs. Johnston. "It's a credit to Northwestern and where the field of brain tumor research is going with treatments. Brain cancer is still a very serious disease, yet I believe there is hope on the horizon."