Johnston a great pickup for Friars' front office

Former Chargers director of PR embracing new role in familiar city

SAN DIEGO -- The Padres' recent hiring of Bill Johnston as a special assistant to the executive chairman was a "no-brainer," said Ron Fowler, the team's executive chairman.

"That, coupled with the fact that he's probably one of the nicest guys I've ever met," Fowler said about the former director of public relations for the Chargers. "His values are great values and really represent what we're trying to be in the community."

Kudos to the Padres. It was the right thing to do, and the move tells fans all they need to know about where the club's heart, mind and character are heading toward the future.

Those in the National Football League are well aware of Johnston's highly-respected 38-year tenure with the Chargers, the last 27 as the club's PR director. His story, though, may be new to those who follow Major League Baseball.

The man most of us simply call "'Ston" was put in a tough position when the Chargers left San Diego for Los Angeles earlier this year. After a lot of soul searching, he left the team for the most significant of reasons.

His wife, Ramona, has Huntington's disease, a rare genetic neurodegenerative disorder that, since her diagnosis in 1999, has stolen most of her motor functions and her ability to speak. She has long been living comfortably in Edgemoor Hospital, a care facility east of downtown San Diego in Santee, Calif. He visits her there early every morning.

After the Chargers announced they were leaving, Johnston scoured Orange County for a similarly skilled nursing facility for his wife. In the end, he decided that her well-being and security at Edgemoor were paramount, so he parted ways with the team he was such a big part of for nearly four decades.

"It really wasn't a difficult decision at all," Johnston said. "To me, the people and persons you love most are the people you're always going to look out for the most and first. My wife is a very special lady. I married well over my head. If the situation were reversed, she would do everything I'm doing and more.

"We made a promise to each other when she was diagnosed that we would do everything we could to bring awareness to this disease we'd never heard about before -- and to make sure that the disease didn't affect our family in the future."

Johnston is not involved in communications with the Padres. He will work on special projects initiated by Fowler, who promises that within six months Johnston's plate will be filled to the brim. His institutional knowledge of San Diego is immeasurable.

Johnston said simply that the new job "is ever evolving," which gives him plenty of time to pursue his primary vocation: raising awareness of Huntington's disease and money to find a cure that may someday help Ramona and spare his children and their children of that fate.

Scientists are well aware that the disease is genetic, and they have isolated the specific gene that causes a deterioration of brain cells, although Johnston said they don't know how his wife contracted it since there's no trail of that disease in her immediate family.

"A child of a parent that has Huntington's disease has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease," he said. "It's a flip of the coin. The key is awareness, letting people know that this disease exists. The horrible nature of it. The symptoms include the symptoms of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and ALS, all rolled up into one disease.

"The good news is they have identified the faulty gene that causes the disease. They now just have to figure out how to stop the damage that it does."

The Johnstons have two adult children: a son, Jared, 32, and a daughter, Hayley, 29. Both are healthy and yet to be married. Both obviously are highly susceptible to the disease, although within the subset of the 50 percent who carry the gene, not everyone is afflicted.

With genetic testing available, Jared decided at 18 that he "wanted to know," if he carried the gene, Johnston said.

"And God blessed us with a negative result for him," Johnston said. "Our daughter, at this point, has chosen not to be tested. She knows that she will when she decides to get married and have children, but at this point, she's doing awesome. She's doing great."

Johnston is proactive in the community raising money to find a cure. Each year, he and Hayley run in the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. They have raised nearly $1 million over the years running that race and about $3 million total through their various programs. Because of that effort, researchers are edging closer to stopping the disease in its tracks.

Each year, including this one, Johnston pushes his wife in a stroller for the 26.2 miles it takes to run the marathon course.

Johnston does it because of love and commitment. Isn't that what love is really all about?

Johnston looks all around him and sees abundance, even though his beloved Chargers -- who had been an anchor to the San Diego community since 1961 -- are gone.

"It's just sad," Johnston said. "It's just sad for everyone involved. It's sad for the community and the people who cared so much about the team. It's sad for the organization -- in my mind, at least. I feel like it was not the result that anyone wanted. But my focus is now on the Padres. I'm happy about where I am."

And the Padres are blessed to have him.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.