A Life All Over the Map for Westfest Greeters Ellie and Peter Johnson

A Life All Over the Map for Westfest Greeters Ellie and Peter Johnson

All photos by Andre Gagne.

1953, between the hushed stacks of a Massachusetts university library, a man musters up the courage to talk to the attractive young woman with the curly hair sitting across from him at the table. She glances up. Their eyes meet for the first time. For a moment, the world around them freezes and then disappears as though there was nothing else there except a women looking curiously at a man looking nervously back at her.

Struggling to say something, anything, he spurts out the first thing that comes to mind: “You know, when you get old you’re going to have beautiful white hair.” Not the most romantic of opening lines, perhaps, but, 62 years later, not only did it prove to be prophetic for Peter Johnson, still gazing lovingly into the eyes of the girl from the library, it also worked.

Since that moment, Ellie and Peter Johnson have lived a life together that has been all about throwing caution to the wind and charting their own paths regardless of what others may think of them; pretty fitting for two students of geography that would eventually dabble in cartography while traveling around the world together. Their trajectory eventually led the couple, now both advancing upon 90 years of age, to become some of the first smiling faces musicians see when they arrive at Westfest.

Though separated briefly after that initial meeting on the Clark University campus when, as Ellie tells it, Peter went off to dig holes in Greenland, the two kept in frequent contact through letters. Shortly after his return in 1955, the couple were married. For mid-50’s Americans, the traditional thing to do next would be to begin a career, purchase a home with the proverbial white picket fence and settle down to start a family. Anybody who knows Ellie and Peter, however, knows the word “traditional” is not at the forefront of their vocabulary.

“After we got married we both quit our jobs, bought some bicycles and spent the next six months bicycling around Europe,” Peter recalls with a smile, pausing for a moment as he’s transported back in time where, wind in his hair, he and his new bride roamed the European countryside.

Ellie, often able to finish Peter’s sentences even if he doesn’t quite know himself where they are going, continues for him: “We got on a ship and had a room in the bowels of the thing next to the engines! We paid nothing to get on. Then the weather went bad.” She glances over at Peter with a smile of her own. “He was sick most of the time.”

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Ellie and Peter review some of the maps they made early in their careers.

The newlyweds proceeded to bike all over Britain, afterwards crossing the English Channel into Paris. They had to see Paris. After next venturing around the Mediterranean, they mailed the bikes home from Italy and continued by train, changing methods of transport once again to bus into Switzerland where Peter promised Ellie a stay at a friend’s home in the mountains. If she thought she would be sojourning in a romantic love nest in the Alps she had another thing coming.

“We had no bikes at this point and were hiking all around,” she recalls. “So we climbed up and up the mountain and when we got there it was a hut where the cows used to lay out!”

Returning to Canada, the couple only had about ten cents left in their wallets. Fortunately, they had somebody to pick them up. It was a dream trip the two would recreate for their 50th anniversary returning, this time, by car to revisit areas of the world that had changed so much since first they were there. Travel has always been an important part of their relationship.

Early in their careers, the two worked together in Northern Labrador, charting the terrain and making new maps of the area. They would be dropped off by a plane at the start of June and left to their own devices until they were picked up in September.

“There was no connection to the outdoors,” Ellie says. “We were walking around mountains. If we had fallen off the hill, well, then that was it. There was no way anybody would know where we were.”

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A few items from Ellie and Peter's travels.

Stepping into the couple’s Westboro condo is like walking into a museum. All around you are selections from their world travels. Pieces from Africa, China, South East Asia and South America, every item, you feel, would have its own story to tell. There are also many colourful rugs, most of these woven by Ellie herself.

When their children came along –two daughters, one a former Ambassador to the Congo and another a long time worker for Parks Canada– Ellie shifted careers to open a weaving shop in Manotick. The couple would call the little town home for the next 42 years. Peter took up a teaching career at Carleton University in their Geography and Environmental Studies Program while Ellie tended to the shop aptly titled The Weavers House.

Ellie's weaving shop's sign now hangs in the couples Westboro home.
Ellie's weaving shop's sign now hangs in the couples Westboro home.

“Once in a while I still see people walking around with garments that I wove and I think, hey, she’s got on one of my jackets,” Ellie says laughing.

Deciding to downsize, the couple moved to the Westboro area close to their daughters and grandchildren. Now retired, the two show no signs of slowing down. Ellie maintains the gardens around the building and they helped run the Westboro Lawn Bowling Club until their knees started to wobble a bit too much for their liking. Lovers of art, the two frequent the National Gallery about twice a week and they are avid theatre goers taking in shows at the National Arts Centre and the Great Canadian Theatre Company. They also enjoy walking every day, either in Gatineau Park or around their neighbourhood. One such walk would bring another unique twist in their lives, this one causing some around them to start wondering if the couple had finally lost their minds.

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While out walking one day, Peter and Ellie discovered Westfest. Then held not far away from their condo, the popular festival would throw a huge block party each June bringing in multiple forms of entertainment to the area. Learning that the festival always needed new volunteers, the couple didn’t hesitate to lend a hand. Four of them.

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The couple's Westfest Above & Beyond award.

“We thought this would be fun. Let’s do that,” Ellie says with Peter relaying how their first job was directing traffic and parking. The two would often be the first volunteers festival goers saw. People still come up to the couple on the street from time to time remembering them from the gates of the festival, their warm greetings or the help they received crossing the road.

That was eight years ago. Over the years the couple would often be the first on site and, sometimes, one of the last to leave hours later,
staying back to help tired volunteers with whatever needed to be done. One night when a fence was about to blow down, the two raced over to hold it up until help arrived to secure it. Westfest Founder and Producer, Elaina Martin, saw the peacefulness and loving nature of the couple early on and would soon move them to their current position of Main Stage Artist Greeters.

Ellie's garden.
Ellie's garden.

“They are love!” Martin says. “They are two peas in a pod. They are always together and are an incredible example of a long life of love for all our crew. They make everybody feel at home. Many artists over the years have spoken with me about how lovely they are, and how they appreciated being greeted by them both. They have this super calming effect, and when the rest of us are running around doing a million things on pressure cookers, it's pretty awesome to have them there!”

“Elaina knows what needs to be done and she does it very carefully on a shoestring. She has a loyal following of volunteers,” says Peter. “She recognizes the need for people who are coming up in the arts in this area. She always has a place for young people. A lot of the artists we have met have been super people.”

Though the couple admits to not always fully understanding the music being performed –the two are classical music fans, mainly– they have fully embraced the artists that walk through those gates backstage.  Most of the time, due the nature of the position, the two don’t even get to see the show. They are quite literally behind the music. Ellie will sit there nursing a tea and comment on what she is hearing, Peter by her side if he's not out getting her that tea.

Whether they are helping with parking or ushering a frantic parent through the gates whose child has forgotten an instrument, Ellie and Peter have always touched those they meet with their kindness and good-hearted attitudes. Juno nominee Craig Cardiff even made a video of his meeting with the two calling them "the sweetest volunteers ever." However, their participation at what can often be a loud and boisterous festival hasn’t always been met with approval.

“Last year we were working down on the ground late at night and people from the top of our building looked down and saw us having a ball wondering why don’t those two just go to bed,” Ellie says adding emphatically: “Just because we’re old doesn’t mean we can’t have fun!”

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Ellie and Peter Johnson in their Westboro garden.

The couple say they return every year for the people they get to meet, how they get to see laughing kids running around, or watch the happiness on people’s faces in the crowd. Also, for the near 90-year-olds, coming back to the festival each year instills within them a form of confidence.

“It proves something to us. It shows we can still do it,” Ellie says, a few tears welling up in the eyes that first captivated Peter so many years ago with a single glance. “We are at a stage in our lives where we are losing close friends, two or three a year if not more, and we know that any time now we won’t be able to do this. So, we show ourselves that we won’t give up just yet. If you stop paying attention, if you stop moving, you’ve had it.”

Ellie and Peter Johnson have no plans to stop that forward motion. After this year’s festival, the couple will be taking another trip, returning to the Labrador terrain they helped chart so many years ago. This time they will be bringing along their grandsons. Both boys are currently in university studying geography, following in those roaming footsteps of their grandparents, another generation living life all over the map.


Ottawa Life’s Festival City Series will provide a unique look at some of your favourite summer events.We’ll go beyond the music with artist interviews, volunteer profiles, concert reviews and spotlights on the tastes, sights and sounds of the festival season. Your city! Your festivals! Your summer! Like a good sunscreen, Ottawa Life has you covered.