For school caretaker Patrick Johnston - who retires next month after fifty-five years in the job - Thornhill College is most certainly in his blood. In fact, he was even born in the school’s old Gate Lodge.
Having devoted so much of his adult life to maintaining the popular all-girls’ college, Patrick will officially retire as caretaker on August 31. Ahead of his retirement, he spoke to the ‘Derry Journal’ about his decades spent at Thornhill and his unusual ties to the place.
“I started working in the gardens of the old Thornhill when I was 10 or 11 years-old, doing a couple of hours in the evenings after school,” the jovial 69 year-old reveals.
“Then, by the time I turned 14, there were three of us working in the gardens and the school grounds, and then I eventually moved into the school to become the caretaker and I’ve been here since. That’s 55 years, and I’m 69 now.”
Unbelievably, Patrick has only had one week off sick during 55 years of employment. “And that was 26 years ago!” he chuckles.
Patrick’s son, Declan, also works at Thornhill College, but the family ties to the school go much deeper than that.
“Well, I was the first of the Johnstons to work here, and then my mother worked in the school sick bay. Then my father, who had been a lorry driver, came to start in the school with me too. We’ve quite a connection here!
“My wife Christine worked at the school for a time too when it was in Artillery Street, in the canteen and cleaning. I also had a sister-in-law here too.”
Patrick, who now lives in Steelstown Village with his wife Christine, was even born within the old school grounds.
“I was born in 1943 in the front Gate Lodge of Thornhill College where my mother and father lived.
“Then down the years they got a gardener who moved into that house, and we moved to the other house on the grounds for a while.”
During his tenure at Thornhill College, the local man has seen many changes. “When I started at the convent in 1957 there was only one Thornhill building, but then they built more and more,” he remembers.
“I’ve seen a brave few changes over the years. The chalets were all built, then the three-storey building and the art rooms were all created, and this new school was eventually built, which is brilliant. Of course, there was a lot we missed about the old school.
“Michael Barr and my son, Declan, are still here working with me, and Michael will take over from me when I retire,” Patrick says.
“We do have long days, from 8am until 6pm every day and then if there’s anything on in the evenings at the school, we take turns working until 9pm or 9.30pm.
“But I think now, after 55 years, it’s time to slow down a bit. I’ll still be in one or two days a week driving the school bus though,” he says.
“But I am looking forward to taking things a bit easier. I suppose the wife will keep me going!
“You have to retire sometime, but I have four sons, eleven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, so I’ll be kept busy enough!”