Jan Johnston has pretty much seen it all as Kelowna has grown from a small community into one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada.
Johnston recently celebrated her 30th year of employment with the city, including the past 17 as the mayor’s secretary. She has worked alongside Walter Gray (twice), Sharon Shepherd and current Mayor Colin Basran.
And while her three-decade career began in 1989, it wasn’t in the mayor’s office.
“I went to the human resources department and was only looking for a part-time job because I had a little one at home and ended up being offered a job at the recreation centre,” she said. “I ended up working there for seven years as a part-time recreation clerk. I ended up working every weekend there for more than seven years. It was a great job. I met a lot of people that were always in great spirits.”
At that job, she met former Kelowna Airport manager Roger Sellick and asked him one day if she could use him as a reference.
“He ended up hiring me for a term position,” she said. “It ended up that I worked for him for seven years out at the airport.”
She finished business administration degree going to school at night during these years and decided to apply for a job at City Hall because her family lived near downtown.
“This job came up at city clerks and I applied for that and got that job,” she said. “Four months later, the mayor’s secretary job came up, so I applied for that and got it. That was 17 years ago and I’ve been at it ever since.”
Johnston has come a long way – literally – from growing up in Regina. She met her husband, Gary, in Williams Lake, where he was working as a disc jockey in 1974. They recently celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary.
They lived and worked in Nelson, where she was working for the Ministry of Forests, before moving to Trail and then Thunder Bay, Ont., where her husband landed another radio job. They spent a few years in Winnipeg before her husband landed an afternoon radio job in Kelowna 33 years ago.
Gray was just finishing his first term as mayor when she was hired.
While she’s enjoyed her entire 30-year career, she readily admits being the mayor’s secretary has been a labour of love from the very first day.
“I really do love my job and always have,” she said. “I get such a variety of inquiries and duties and meet so many interesting people.”
The city manager is responsible for hiring the mayor’s secretary and she has nothing but kind words for Ron Bourne, who originally hired her. She also worked under Ron Mattuisi and current city manager Doug Gilchrist.
Johnston, a woman with a kind smile, has nothing but kind words for all three mayors she’s worked with.
“Walter Gray was just a wonderful man,” she said. “He is so funny with a great sense of humour. He’s a great storyteller and he’s met so many and worked with so many people. He just had a fascinating career and was just a joy to work for. He did a great job and was always thinking about how to make this city an even better place to live.”
Sharon Shepherd “was wonderful to work for too,” Johnston said. “She was so caring and compassionate . . . and did a lot of work at the grassroots level. She did a lot of work to make sure everyone was taken care of and could meet their needs.”
Her relationship with Gray continued when he was re-elected.
The transition to working for Basran the past five years has been very easy, she said.
“He’s a very modern man and he works very hard and succeeds very well at the difficult balance of work and home,” she said. “He’s got young children at home and it’s really important to him to maintain that balance, so I help him as much as I can with that.”
Basran has a passion for Kelowna and its residents and realizes the city faces many challenges as it continue to grow at breakneck speed, she said.
“He knows a lot of people and has some great ideas,” she said.
Johnston acknowledges being mayor’s secretary means people do ask her questions about the inner workings of City Hall.
“There is professionalism involved and I make them know I can’t talk about these things," Johnston said. "I’ve learned how to deal with it. Most of my best friends don’t even ask any more.”
The growth of Kelowna over the past 30 years has been mind-boggling, said Johnston.
“The growth, especially the past few years, has been unbelievable,” she said. “I really think the growth of the airport has played a key role,” she said. “Having that facility there and how much it has grown as sort of a gateway to the Okanagan . . . I think that really changed things.
“The expansion of the university in bringing in students from all over the world has also been phenomenal. Our college is amazing and our hospital has grown incredibly as well the last 10 years.”
Johnston said it’s going to be bittersweet when she steps down for retirement in less than two years.
She especially wants to spend more time with her three children and her newly born first grandchild.
Her eldest son is a married musician in Vancouver, while her second son is a teacher married to another teacher in Nakusp – they just had their first child — and her daughter recently got married and lives in Darwin, Australia.
“I’m 63 now and I think I’ll go when I’m 65,” she said. “I would like to keep working beyond that because I really enjoy it and I don’t know what I will do when I’m not working, but retirement is coming for sure. I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve met so many fascinating people and good friends while sitting at this desk.”