Malcolm William Brent Johnson was born in Vancouver on March 11, 1977, to Malcolm Sr., a navy officer and diver, and Lynda, a hairdresser. Malcolm, who was white-blond with piercing blue eyes, was “always ahead of the game,” says Lynda. “He walked early, talked early, read early.” But he didn’t always have it easy. His parents divorced when he was young, and he bounced around B.C., to Vernon, Mackenzie, Armstrong, then Prince George. He was only nine when his dad died, suddenly.
Malcolm threw his energy into karate—kyokushin, which is rooted in a philosophy of self-improvement, discipline and hard work. Soon, the ethic became his own. He was fiercely independent, and doted on his half-brother Lance, five years his junior, taking him trick-or-treating, and dropping him at school every morning, hanging up his jacket, pulling off his boots and putting him in his inside shoes. By 12, he was answering phones, making coffee and sweeping up hair at the Woolco salon his mom managed. At 15, he’d landed a job at Wendy’s.
The family, by then, had settled in the northern mill town of Prince George. Lynda married Willie Huolt, a dock foreman at Van Kam Freightways Ltd., who became a father to the boys. But Malcolm was itching to get back to the coast and, after graduating from Prince George Senior Secondary, moved to Ladner, on the Fraser River near Vancouver, to live with his grand-parents, the Johnsons. He was especially close to Evelyn, a geriatric nurse who saw Malcolm like a son. He landed the 5 a.m. shift at the local London Drugs, a pharmacy chain, stocking shelves. It was tough, grinding work. Malcolm’s co-workers, who were a decade or more older, were astonished by his drive.
He was only 18, but he never went out partying, never called in sick or showed up even one minute late. “He was a man in a kid’s body,” says Alana Brown, a co-worker. Sometimes it seemed like Malcolm, the child among them, was the most mature of them all. London Drugs took note. At 19, he was made key-holder, then supervisor, the following year. To celebrate, Malcolm bought himself a used, blue Datsun—a proud moment. “When you have nothing,” says Alana, “little things mean a lot to you.”
Soon, he was promoted to manager and transferred to a brand-new store in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. There, he fell for Heather Pynten, a warm, beautiful woman who worked in the store’s cosmetics department. But by then he knew the retail game inside out and, hungry for a new challenge, earned a realtor’s licence. Ron Williams, who heads the downtown branch of Nanaimo’s Coast Realty, hired him six years ago, minutes after he walked through the door. He’d never sold a house, but Ron was bowled over by his maturity, charisma and obvious hunger. He knew he had a star in his sights. Sure enough, within five years, Malcolm was among the city’s top five realtors.
On Valentine’s Day in 2008, his career in order, Malcolm brought Heather to Tofino, where he proposed. Within weeks, they learned she was pregnant. For Audrey’s first six months, Malcolm worked from home: he couldn’t bear to leave his little girl, a strawberry blond with his sharp blue eyes. When he did venture out, he’d go armed with an iPhone loaded with clips of her giggling, crawling for a cookie, dancing for the first time.
Malcolm and Heather decided to marry in Mexico on Nov. 10, and celebrate Audrey’s first birthday on the beach, three days later. For Malcolm, the trip was also a reward. All his life, he’d “just worked, worked, worked,” unwavering in his will to succeed, says Ron. But now, he’d built the perfect career, the perfect family. Finally, he could relax, even splurge on his girls. It was the first beach holiday he’d ever taken. For months, he’d been counting down the days.
He wore a white-collared shirt for the oceanside ceremony; into a pocket, he’d tucked a medal belonging to Evelyn, now deceased. The wedding party, all in white, threw red rose petals into the air to symbolize a long life together, a local ritual. Malcolm whispered to his aunt Debra that he was the luckiest man alive.
Four days later, on the morning of Nov. 14, he headed down to the lobby of Playa del Carmen’s Grand Princess Riviera Hotel to get a coffee for his bride. An explosion tore through the hotel, killing Malcolm, who was 33, and six others.