Midsouth Woodturner Guild’s Oldest Member & Kirby Pines Resident John Johnson Celebrates 101 Years!

John in the Hobby shop on his 101st birthday

On May 22nd of this year John R. Johnson, one of our founding members, celebrated his 101st Birthday. About two years ago he stopped woodturning but stays active making Zentangle diagrams (repetitive figures often involving only straight lines) and other detailed pen and ink drawings. John’s philosophy holds that to enjoy life one needs a goal every day. If you stand outside and knock on John’s window (he is currently restricted to his assisted living room at Kirby Pines) you will most often find him working there where the light is strong. He’ll look up, smile and be delighted with a ‘socially-distanced’ visit and raise the window for a chat. 

John was born in Martinez, CA but grew up on a farm in Cleveland, Georgia. Completing his few years of formal schooling (finished 4th grade) and ‘put to the plow behind a mule’ he soon learned farming was not for him. Early radios were often just a galena crystal, a “cats whisker” and a pair of earphones, but John moved on to building and operating a ham radio station which involved diodes, capacitors, resistors and learning the Morse code. At the beginning of WWII this served to get him into the Army Air Force (bypassing boot camp), wherein he was flown over much of the African continent setting up radios at local airports in case the military needed them. In 1946 John took flying lessons and much later built and flew two ultralight planes. He joined the Civil Air Patrol and retired as supervisor of the Memphis unit. Through self-study and various organized courses he became a licensed professional engineer. He is widely read, with an enormous vocabulary and an insatiable curiosity, and has travelled over the entire US and much of Europe in his later years. There are few topics which John does not know something about. Currently he is hindered by defective hearing and frequently has to search for the correct word. Because he recalls a great deal of the Bible he sometimes is asked to stay quiet or leave religious classes because he raises so many questions. For his 91st birthday he wanted to fly one more time, rented a plane with an instructor (who never touched the controls) and greatly enjoyed it. 

After retirement, John and his wife spent many winters living in an RV near Phoenix, Arizona where he set up a small shop, turned and sold items. He has turned hundreds of stair bannisters, thousands of clock case finials, numerous bowls, weed pots, and offset items during his 65 years at the lathe, never using a sharpening system! He was a master at making adapters, wooden chucks, and special jigs to hold his work. At one time John got into miniature turning and did many objects within objects, often using a jewelers lathe. His large bowl lathe was a converted horizontal milling machine. His favorite lathe for many years was a Delta rescued from the Lazarov Scrap Yard by his friend John Williams. 

In the mid-nineties John moved the small, cramped Hobby Shop at Kirby Pines to a new, larger location and set about outfitting it with a wide variety of machine tools for both flat and turned work. He served as the supervisor of the shop until 4 years ago; this included deciding which residents were qualified to use it safely. 

Written by Ray Tanner, Kirby Pines Resident