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Widow's moving tribute as hundreds mourn Queen's University cancer expert Professor Patrick Johnston

By Aaron Tinney

The widow of cancer research pioneer Professor Patrick Johnston fought back tears as she told mourners how he proposed to her during a call from a phone box six months after they met.

Iseult Johnston also paid tribute yesterday to the Queen’s University Vice-Chancellor’s love of education and family and spoke of how ‘Paddy’ loved to relax at their holiday home in Dunree, Donegal.

Prof Johnston died suddenly on Sunday aged 58.

During a presentation of her husband’s most prized possessions during his funeral, members of Mrs Johnston’s family carried his favourite frayed shirt to his coffin.

She said it was the top her husband was wearing the night before he died.

Prof Johnston’s funeral was attended by DUP leader Arlene Foster, PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, Belfast mayor Nuala McAllister, ex-UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and the SDLP’s south Belfast election candidate Alasdair McDonnell.

Monsignor David Diamond told hundreds of mourners at St Brigid’s Parish Church on Derryvolgie Avenue, south Belfast, of the “immense sadness” being experienced by Prof Johnston’s family after the “shocking suddenness” of his death.

Msgr Diamond also called the cancer specialist an “angel of peace” and said it was not an “ordinary set of circumstances that led us to be here today”.

As her husband’s treasured possessions, including a stethoscope and Queen’s University award were laid around his oak coffin, Mrs Johnston told mourners how he loved being “at peace with the world” in his Donegal holiday home.

She added: “This stethoscope represents Paddy’s commitment to education.

“He wore many hats — many, unfortunately, were a series of baseball caps.

“But the hat he was most proud of wearing was the one he wore at every graduation as Vice-Chancellor at Queen’s University.”

And as a model of a telephone box was brought to Prof Johnston’s coffin, she added: “Paddy and I met in November 1993 in Dublin, where I had my first job as a physiotherapist.

“In May, 1984, Paddy phoned me from a phone box, and in the course of that phone call he proposed, and I said, ‘Okay’.

“We got married the following April in 1985.”

Mrs Johnston joked it took her 48 hours to decide she wanted to marry Paddy, but he spent months before landing on the same idea.

As the shirt the professor was wearing the night before he died was carried through mourners, his widow said: “He loved this shirt. It was bought years ago on a family holiday.

“It’s old and frayed by now, and he wore it when he was off-call, most at peace with the world and just enjoying life.

“This was the shirt he wore last Saturday.”

She added of Paddy’s love of Donegal: “He had so many happy experiences there as a child.

“It was where Paddy was most content and at peace.”

Referring to a family picture on the back of the order of service at the funeral, Mrs Johnston said it showed her and Paddy with their four “amazingly special” grown up sons, Seamus, Eoghan, Niall and Ruairi.

Mourners were told that yesterday’s service consisted of a “multi-faith” congregation, and there was the offer made of a “blessing” instead of communion when it finished.

Msgr Diamond spoke of his “deep love” for Prof Johnston after they first met when he was studying in America.

He said: “Visiting Paddy and Iseult in their home and cycling through Washington DC with Paddy, he became a greater part of my life.

“Our cycling was not always met with approbation from Iseult, who would say, ‘It’s fine for you two to go cycling around the countryside and for a big posh breakfast and leave me at home with the four boys’.”

The Msgr said it was a visit to his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary that led them to want to focus more on family life, so they moved to Northern Ireland from America.

He added: “This is a dark time for all of us, especially Professor Patrick Johnston’s family.

“Our presence is testimony to the life of a man whom God has, for reasons beyond the understanding of any of us, called home to himself.

“This Sunday, Iseult called me with the incredible news that he had died.

“Words at this point are meek. He was a friend with whom I shared so much and for whom I had a deep admiration and

love.

“I do not know how people without faith survive in a world marked by irrational and seemingly meaningless loss.

“Our friend Paddy is gone and all things are different.”

Msgr Diamond also heaped praise on Prof Johnston for his pioneering work on cancer research.

The Derry-born professor, appointed to his senior role at Queen’s in 2014, had an international reputation in the medical sector and was regarded as one of the world’s leading cancer specialists.

He played a central role in the establishment of the Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s and was campaigning for poorer students to be given more public funding before he died.

In 2012, he received a Diamond Jubilee Queen’s Anniversary Prize from the Queen for the university-led reorganisation of cancer care in Northern Ireland.

Prof Johnston was also awarded the recipient of the Alumnus Illustrissimus Award, which is given to achievements of major significance in their fields of expertise.

Other recipients include Nobel Laureates Seamus Heaney and John Hume.

Leaders from the fields of science, politics and business have spoken of their sorrow at Prof Johnston’s death, calling him the man who “put Belfast on the global research map”.

Quoting Seamus Heaney, Msgr Diamond said: “Hope and history rhymed in Paddy’s life.

“No one would think of cancer as a light affliction. But Paddy, in his work, his research, his care for his students and his patients, lightened that affliction.

“He lived his life for others primarily as a husband, a father, a doctor and lastly as an administrator at Queen’s. He lived his life for others.

“His accomplishments, amazingly earned in one lifetime, would have required lesser men to live three or four lives.

“How many people live because Professor Johnston lived?

“He saw his work as a manner of being a link in a chain, that bond of connection between persons, an angel of peace and a preacher of truth.”

After the service, mourners lined the streets as Prof Johnston’s funeral cortege passed the university.

They included students in traditional Indian dress and nursing uniforms.

He was later buried at Desertegney Cemetery in Linsford, Buncrana.

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