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By Jesse Utz 

"Gems in the Coulee - John Huston" Part 1

Jess Shut Up


I decided that at least once a week I would dig up a gem of a person in the Grand Coulee area and write about him or her, someone who might do pretty cool things or have an amazing heart that might go unnoticed. So here is my first installment of Gems in the Coulee.

Many people in the area know John Huston. He has been around a long, long time. I mean he is old. I’m kidding. (I had to do one old joke, John; it’s out of my system now.) Some might know him as Mrs. Huston’s husband and sometimes sub at the middle school. Some might know him as Gretchen’s and Jessica’s dad. Some might even say he is that guy who retired from the USBR. But not many know what he has done after retirement.

Since he retired he has put in 371 days in destructed, disaster-ridden communities. Communities like Galveston, Texas, after Hurricane Ike, and Joplin, Missouri, after a big tornado. He has worked in Kentucky and Pennsylvania after an ice storm and a massive snow fall. He just recently returned, after 135 straight days, from Staten Island, NY, and the Jersey Shore helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Not what most would call retirement days? But then again, John is not the average man.

John retired from the USBR in 2005. In 2006 he heard from his brother-in-law about a program for retired government workers who could volunteer their time in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with disaster cleanups. They would be paid for their time on the job, the volunteer part meant they must be able to travel anywhere they were needed on 24 hours notice.

John enrolled. He saw it as a possible mission field for his faith. John and his wife Cathy have been active members of the GC Church of the Nazarene for many years and John has been helping people since he gave his life to Christ as a teenager. He would have to wait just under two years before getting a call to head to Texas in 2008 after Hurricane Ike destroyed the homes of thousands in Galveston.

John has a funny story about his first night sleeping in a strange bed. He awoke in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and thought he knew the layout of the room well enough. As he was reaching for where the bathroom door knob was supposed to be he bent over and hit his head on the wall. The wall was unscathed but above Johns eye was cut and bruised. His supervisor’s first words the next day were, “What happened to you?” John told him the truth. His first impression might not have been the way he wanted to start his new adventure, but he obviously has made up for it.

On one mission he received a two-star general’s coin from the general personally. A great honor for anyone, but you could tell this was very special for John, just the way his eyes flickered and danced a happy dance as he told me. He has received a few other coins too and one is on the way from New Jersey right now. These coins are given if you do an outstanding job or go beyond the call of duty, and I imagine getting one from such a respectable man as a two-star general is special.

There were a few times John wanted to make sure I heard what he was saying during our talk. I’m pretty sure he was giving me that look as he told me. You know the look. It was the same look my Grandpa Nessly would give me when he was giving me life advice, and since John knew my grandpa personally, I’m sure my grandpa gave him the same look a time or two.

One of the things he made sure I heard, as he tapped his finger down on the table, was that in a disaster, where whole neighborhoods and many communities where affected, people get hungry. Guess what, people showed up to get meals. The poor and the rich. The rich would drive in their brand new luxury cars and the poor would walk in with nothing on their feet, but the bottom line was that they both lost everything and were hungry. They were equals at that moment, and I think that is what John was trying to instill in me.

John spoke of his missions for about an hour, with not much input from anyone else. Once in a while Cathy would remind John of something he told her and then he would be off again.

And we’ll talk about that in next week’s column.

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