Walter Johnson turned 100 years old last month. In celebration, his church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, feted him with a surprise birthday party and Wytheville Mayor Beth Taylor proclaimed Oct. 25, 2019, as “Walter F. Johnson Day.”
“I had no idea about the party,” Johnson said.
Johnson has lived in Wythe County for more than 30 years. He and his wife, Irene, settled here after Johnson retired as an oil company finance officer. He was born in Buffalo, New York, on Oct. 25, 1919, and graduated from Canisius College in Buffalo with a degree in business and economics, just in time for World War II. He was soon drafted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and wound up working as a pay officer.
After training, he was ordered to Camp San Luis Obispo, near Morro Bay, California, where one day a co-worker told him there was someone there to see him.
“It was the girl I left behind,” Johnson said.
Johnson met Irene Potter, a friend of his sister’s, on a Buffalo street car. They didn’t speak at first, but then Johnson asked his sister to introduce them because he wanted to ask her to a college dance.
“That’s how I got my dancing partner,” he said.
In California, when Johnson went to see who was visiting him, there stood Irene, who had accepted a job at a nearby hospital.
“I said, honey, you know and I know that we can’t be here alone, and we are not married,” Johnson recalled. “She said, ‘Well?’ That’s what you call a recommendation. Three days later, we got married.”
And they stayed married as Johnson’s military career carried him to the Philippines and back to Buffalo after the war. Eventually, he wound up working for Pennzoil in Pennsylvania and Texas, and then returned to his hometown.
Together, he and Irene had two children, five grandchildren and two-great children. When it came time to retire, Johnson was driving through Wythe County, liked what he saw and plopped down $17,000 for 10 acres off of Peppers Ferry Road near Max Meadows. He designed a house, and Dallas Reed built it. There, the Johnsons planted 5,000 pine trees.
“The trees are beautiful, but it’s hard to see the house for the trees,” Johnson said.
They also planted a large garden, where they grew everything from asparagus and rhubarb to beets, corn and tomatoes.
“We swapped with a neighbor,” Johnson said. “We had tomatoes and they had potatoes.”
Life was good, and then Irene’s memory began to fail. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and eventually moved into Carrington Place, where her husband visited her twice a day every day.
“I fed her two meals a day for about five years,” he said.
But Walter was nearing 80 years old and the back-and-forth drive every day became more difficult, especially in the cold and snowy winter, so he built a home closer to Carrington Place so he could still be near Irene.
She died in 2001.
These days, Walter stays busy and helps his church whenever he can. Ever the finance man, he keeps up with his bills and correspondence from his immaculate home office. Forget email, Walter prefers hand-written notes and letters; he received 50 birthday cards.
In all, Walter corresponds with 130 people – every name and address is written on old computer tabs and bound with a sturdy rubber band. In a black notebook calendar, he has recorded every birthday and anniversary of friends and family members so he can mail out salutations and birthday greetings.
Walter comes from a long-lived family, so he always suspected he would live a long time.
“And I wasn’t looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s a physical problem. I can’t do things like I used to. And I can’t walk any faster than I can walk.”
So, what’s the secret, beside genes?
“You treat your body like a fine-tuned machine,” he said. “You feed it well but don’t feed it much. You eat for your stomach, not for your mouth.”
Walter means what he says. He keeps his meals simple, only varying his food at dinner time.
For breakfast, it’s cereal, milk, blueberries and a banana. For lunch, it’s Wheat Thins, sharp cheese and fruit of some sort, like clementines or grapes. He drinks coffee only in the morning and 100 percent cranberry/grape juice the rest of the time.
Except for 5 p.m., when he pours himself a Manhattan – four parts blended whiskey to one part dry vermouth - with one piece of ice to keep it cool. He sips his drink, enjoys a bit of popcorn and turns on “The Five” on Fox News.
Interesting. Any more advice?
Keep learning and improving.
Step away from your past and keep right on going.
And, oh, yes – stay out of politics.
To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 35, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.