Kentucky by Heart: Celebrating Uncle Howard’s 95th birthday an invigorating ‘slice-of-life’ moment

A few Saturdays ago, Suzanne and I traveled to the Grant’s Lick area, in the southern part of Campbell County, for a surprise celebration for “Uncle Howard” Johnston’s 95th birthday. Being there and seeing old friends and family members captured pleasant memories from my youth.

The party occurred at the Fairlane Baptist Church, on Highway #27, a stone’s throw from where I lived from age 6 to 10. The Flairty family, later moved several miles northward to Claryville to live and tend a small farm.

Steve Flairty with Uncle Howard. (Photo by Suzanne Isaacs)

But first, some words about Uncle Howard, who was the husband of my deceased “Aunt Mae,” twin sister of Alma Faye, my deceased mother. Close family members, for whatever reason, know Howard as “Johnson,” including me, but I digress.

Since the 1960s, Howard has worked as both a full-time, and more recently at his advanced age, as a part-time land surveyor. Until recently, he was Pendleton County’s official land surveyor. He has practiced his profession in all parts of Kentucky and has been recognized by his peers with professional awards. I wrote about him in this column a few years back.

Uncle Howard is a bridge to my past growing up in Northern Kentucky. He has an amazing memory for people and places in Campbell and Pendleton Counties. He remembers names, family lineages, and seems to know every thornbush and cedar tree growing on their acreages.

I’ve used him as a resource for my articles more than once. He frequently brings me up to date with the lives of adults that I knew a half century ago as a child. All that and the connection with Aunt Mae make him a significant part of my thoughts.

On that Saturday, with thirty-two of us being present, we waited as he was moved by daughter Carolee’s husband, Pete, on a wheelchair through the opened glass doors. Entering, Uncle Howard–never at a loss for words—was at a loss for words. And though he later confided that he “thought something was up,” he had been told he was being taken out for a meal at a local restaurant.

Uncle Howard Johnston and his family members at his 95th birthday celebration (Photo by Jennifer Pierce)

Daughter Connie Mann noted that she saw “a tear or two on his cheek”, and he appeared more subdued than usual. I guess there can be a temporary personality change when one is overwhelmed with the outpouring of love from family and in-laws. For sure, that’s a good thing. I’m sure that he got back to gabbing and storytelling within a day or two, but not so much on that day.

As a sort of make-conversation joke, I asked him if he had surveyed the Fairlane Baptist property on which we were standing. “Yes,” he quickly responded with a hint of pride, “… and the lot next to it too.” He wasn’t kidding. He’s surveyed thousands of acres over the years, and I’m guessing he remembers, at least, something about each one of them.

That special cake for Uncle Howard. (Photo by Steve Flairty)

Son Billy’s talented wife, Teresa, decorated the tables with glass jars, and they were authentic and creative representations of Uncle Howard’s passions. They included a sampling of hulled walnuts and small walnut tree branches, reminders of his “business” of collecting the walnuts and selling them to Falmouth, and most recently, Cynthiana hulling station markets. And knowing that he feeds the birds all during the year, she included some bluebird figurines and nests in the bottles.

Along with those items, Teresa added some small, practical surveyor items she discovered in his blue 1985 Suburban. To those who know Uncle Howard well, the motif in the room on the occasion was easily understood with only a small bit of explanation.

The day also served as a family reunion in general. I was happy to see Uncle’s Howard’s kids, who I’ve mentioned, along with his nephews and nieces: Roger, David, Sondra, and Sharon. All except Sharon, who was very young at the time, were frequent playmates of my brother and mine as we were growing up. I had an extended conversation with Roger, who mentioned that my father had helped his now deceased father, Uncle Howard’s brother, get a job at a low time in his life. I was not aware, or possibly forgotten it, and it blessed me.

Seeing such kindred spirits together — with the reason being to give honor to a beloved relative on his 95th birthday — was so very exhilarating. And to be together on a happy occasion rather than at funerals, as in the last decade or so, was even better. I salute all who put this thing together, and I salute Uncle Howard Johnston for the way he has touched us.

It was another one of those Kentucky by Heart slices of life, and I hope sharing it invigorates you to facilitate more of the same with your family.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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