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The farm governor-general-designate David Johnston shares with his wife Sharon, Chatterbox, in Heidelberg, near Waterloo on July 9, 2010. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)
The farm governor-general-designate David Johnston shares with his wife Sharon, Chatterbox, in Heidelberg, near Waterloo on July 9, 2010. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)

Affable governor-general designate enjoys a town and country life Add to ...

Wellesley Township is only a 20-minute drive from the high-tech hub of northern Waterloo, but it often looks like another world.

Farmers sell maple syrup out of their homes, Mennonites ply the country roads in black horse-drawn buggies and hang their washing out to dry on the line, and everyone seems to know their neighbours.

This is the place that David and Sharon Johnston - Canada's next governor-general and viceregal consort, respectively - call home. They have lived at Chatterbox Farm, a horse training and boarding facility, since they moved to the area in 1999 after Mr. Johnston was appointed president of the University of Waterloo.

They ensconced themselves in the community from the start: when they moved in, they made the rounds and introduced themselves to the locals, Mrs. Johnston learned the art of caring for horses from her Mennonite neighbours, and when they've hosted dignitaries and other parties over the years, they've bought the food from local businesses.

"They're everyday people, there's nothing flashy about them," said Kevin Stemmler, 44, who co-owns Stemmler Meats, a butcher shop and deli down the road from the Johnstons' house, with his brothers. "Mrs. Johnston sometimes comes in here dressed for the barn."

The local Mennonites are reluctant to comment on Mr. Johnston's appointment, politely explaining that they steer clear of politics, but say the man they know is a modest one.

At a Mennonite cattle farm down the street from Chatterbox, a barefoot little girl in a long, pale pink dress plays in the yard, and a tall farmer in a blue plaid shirt, suspenders and a torn straw hat says he knows the Johnstons from cutting hay for them.

"Even though he's a person of power, if he comes in here, he asks, 'how are things going? How is the beef?' and all that. He doesn't honk his own horn," said the man, who declined to give his name.

David Martin, 43, a Mennonite who has lived on the land adjoining the Johnstons' for 20 years, says the same.

"They're very friendly and outgoing. When we meet them, they are always ready to chat," he said.

The Johnstons' approachability has rubbed off on Chatterbox. The future representative of royalty isn't home at the moment, but the stables are open as Maya Markowski, 27, gives riding lessons, and Gale Blackburn, 59, leads her brown stallion around the dirt arena.

"They're very supportive people," Ms. Markowski said of her bosses. "David will come out here and help the [Mennonites]with the hay."

Ms. Blackburn started coming here shortly after the place opened. When she first brought her horse to board, Ms. Johnston came out of the house to greet them, she said.

"Here she is at five feet, feeding this big golden horse a whole armful of carrots," said the retired teacher. "She knew every horse. If a horse kicked in the middle of the night, she'd be out here."

The couple treat their boarders like family, inviting them into the house for parties and barbecues, she said.

Down the road in Waterloo, in the expanse of suburban industrial parks that has transformed this area into a miniature Silicon Valley, Mr. Johnston's reputation is much the same as it is among his country neighbours.

Dave Caputo, co-founder of broadband network company Sandvine, recalls that when the university president visited to introduce himself, he asked to meet the company's Waterloo co-op students.

"We found a bunch of them playing foosball in the lunch room. He asked them what they liked and didn't like about the school, and what they wanted in their program," he said. "He's incredibly affable and incredibly smart, with a great amount of humility thrown in."

Tim Jackson, a Waterloo venture capitalist who heads the Accelerator Centre, a UW organization the helps commercialize technological research, said Mr. Johnston has made himself accessible to anyone who wants help in the community. When Mr. Jackson and the Prosperity Council of Waterloo Region approached him about assisting local arts and culture, for instance, he helped form the Barnraisers Council to rally local leaders to the cause.

"He's as comfortable talking to the person on the street as he is talking to a head of state," Mr. Jackson said.

And how will Canada's next G-G keep his small-town sensibility as he moves from the back roads of Waterloo Region to the palatial expanse of Rideau Hall?

Bob MacMillan, who owns the Heidelberg Restaurant, Tavern and Motel, housed in a 19th-century stagecoach station two kilometres from the Johnstons' farm, has at least one suggestion.

"Hopefully, they'll have a stable there for Sharon," he said.

Follow on Twitter: @adrianmorrow

 

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