Dozens of Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group employees and their family members gathered one unusually hot September morning in Audubon Park to pay tribute to the company’s late owner – Don Johnston – with a memorial bridge built in his honor.
It was a no-brainer for what material to use for the bridge. Steel was how Don built his businesses, so of course, steel would be used to forge the bridge that honors him. The bridge was donated to the Friends of the Audubon to be placed in Audubon Park. It is located on the north side of the older of the two lakes in the park. People can access it from the Wilderness Lake Trailhead.
Audubon State Park holds a special meaning to the Johnston family. The Johnstons used to live close to the park grounds and Don’s six children played in the park as if it was an extension of their backyard.
Standing below the new bridge on the wooden bridge it replaced, Chris Johnston delivered a heartfelt tribute to his late grandpa. Like the bridge, his grandfather was steady support to his family, the company he founded, his employees and the Henderson community.
“As the bridge is there supporting you all, he so supported us,” said Chris, who is PTTG’s vice president of risk management. “Never afraid to trust, teach, give more than a second chance, and help when we might have thought there was no one else.”
Don’s life and work opened the door for many others to build careers and live out their dreams.
“Don Johnston was a driven, innovative entrepreneur who cared deeply about those who ran the race alongside him,” said Dylan Phelps, PTTG’s chief wellness officer. “His biological family came first. He built his life and businesses around them, and he was kind enough to adopt hundreds of others into his fold throughout his career.”
Don successfully built and ran multiple corporations, but his most rewarding venture was building meaningful relationships with his employees, whom he considered extended family.
“The evidence of that could be seen almost any day of the week as friends and present and past employees would visit him and share laughs and memories,” Dylan said. “He was the catalyst that created the Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group of companies. Even more, he was the patriarch that nurtured the PTTG family.”
Planning for the bridge began immediately after Don Johnston passed away on Jan. 2, 2018. A light bulb turned on in Allstate President Keegan O’Daniel’s head during a brainstorming session on ways to honor Don and the Johnston family. Keegan remembered that Audubon Park was in the process of replacing some of its bridges that connected walking trails. So why not create a bridge that would recognize Don’s life and his contributions to the community? After all, wouldn’t a steel bridge be the perfect symbol and tribute to the life that Don lived?
Money to secure the opportunity to build the bridge was raised through PTTG employees’ generous donations. As a united family, PTTG employees presented PTTG President Ben Johnston and the Johnston family the bridge official documents at Don’s remembrance service.
Employees pitched in at every opportunity to make Ben’s vision for a bridge honoring his late father a reality. The company’s talented engineers and drafters took Ben’s idea and turned them into blueprints, and the bridge was fabricated at the company’s Allstate Tower facility. On a hot and humid day in late June 2018, more than 60 employees voluntarily gathered early on a Saturday morning in Audubon Park to dig the piers for the new bridge and carry heavy bags of concrete to the trail. The concrete was set later that day. Employees bent, bolted and welded the steel structure together. Finally, a crew erected the impressive steel bridge in Audubon Park.
Audubon Park is the top tourist attraction in Henderson County, drawing hundreds of thousands of people annually. It’s estimated that about 70 percent of the people who visit the park will hike the trail, so the bridge will have a huge impact for both the park and Henderson County.
The bridge was unveiled on Sept. 28, 2019 – following biometric screenings and proceeding a hamburger lunch held in Audubon State Park. At the conclusion of the dedication ceremony, employees, whom Don always considered extended family, unveiled a plaque honoring him, along with brightly painted steel cutouts of birds that add extra decorative flair to the structure.
“Grandpa was known for a lot of things, but the thing I learned the most from him was to take care of family, and that means all of you and all of the employees he trusted, believed in and loved over the years,” Chris said during his speech before the unveiling of the bridge.
“This bridge that stands here shows the love and loyalty that he gave every day made a difference,” Chris continued. “He always said if they are with you when times are good and they sacrifice for you, when times are bad you sacrifice for them, he meant that and lived by it. You all here have been with us and our family through our trying times, our ups and downs. And through this wonderful, thoughtful, generous gift have given our family and community a way to remember Don and his supportiveness, his generosity, and his love to make sure we have support along the way.”