MARYSVILLE — Ken Johnson’s surprise party in mid-January for his 80th birthday was a double surprise.
He had no idea there were a bunch of people waiting in the club house to startle him with cake, hugs and gifts.
The other shocker was he was still around to celebrate.
Paralyzed from a spinal cord injury in 1966, Johnson never thought he’d even make it to this century. He was one of the oldest surviving people with quadriplegia in the United States.
Johnson died Jan. 27 after a sudden illness at his home.
A few days earlier, he spoke with The Daily Herald for a story about his life and athletic endeavors.
The freak accident that confined him to a wheelchair for 54 years didn’t stop him from going places.
Around 1980, he started traveling around the country competing in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and other sports for paralyzed athletes. He excelled, winning about 90 medals in swimming, archery and track. He was featured in newspaper stories for bringing home the gold and setting national records.
In his last interview on Jan. 24, Johnson said that gave him a purpose.
“I love meeting people. I love talking to them. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to see what was in the news,” he said.
“I always wanted to see what was around the bend the next day.”
Johnson graduated from Marysville High School in 1958.
“I was going to join the Navy but the office was closed so I joined the Coast Guard,” he said. “I almost died on a 36-foot Coast Guard boat when it crashed into a jetty of rocks when we were trying to rescue fishermen.”
He had a wife and two young sons when he worked a job on a chicken ranch in Mount Vernon.
“I was a millwright, I mixed chicken feed for 20,000 chickens,” he said.
He recalled the split second that changed his life in 1966. It was while fixing the broken rollers on a spring-loaded overhead door.
“When I climbed up against the door it kicked that roller back in and the roller on the other side came out and the door came apart and the bottom section came up and hit me in the neck and picked me all the way up and crushed my neck against the casing,” he said.
“On the way down I thought, ‘I’m dead.’”
He remembered every detail.
“The doctors told my wife I was going to die that night,” he said. “They put me in intensive care and the person next to me was making such a racket breathing, I told them, ‘Please put me in another room so I can get some sleep.’”
Johnson spent eight months in a Seattle hospital. “In a circle-frame bed, which they no longer use. They flipped me back and forth and back and forth and had the bed turned every two hours,” he said.
“They put holes in my skull and they had a rope and tongs that were hanging off the end of the bed to keep my neck in a position where it wouldn’t move.”
His arms and legs were paralyzed. He had minimal use of his hands. He used his mouth to paint a landscape picture that hung on his wall for years.
After his marriage ended in divorce, he started taking classes at Everett Community College. That led to sports.
As he put it: “They threw me in the pool and I bobbed up. I floated on my back … All that floated above water was my knees and my face.”
That was enough to get him swimming competitively.
“That was the start of my wheelchair games,” he said. “I looked forward to it. I trained for it. I was going to all these different states from Hawaii to Virginia. Michigan to Texas.”
Johnson later remarried and bought a place at Crystal Tree Village mobile home community in 2001. After the marriage ended three years ago, a caretaker, Shane Hurley, moved in with him to provide full time help.
On good days, “He’d be ready to greet the day,” Hurley said. “He’d take the power chair and take the bus, and get a burger on the way home.”
He liked going to thrift stores to get history books.
“Just to get out of the house,” Johnson said. “I’d get on the bus and go wherever it went. Go to the end of the line.”
His health had been declining in recent weeks. His niece, Debbie Jaeger, organized the party for his Jan. 13 birthday, attended by about 25 people.
Guests included Kathy Hamel, Marysville Class of ‘58, who brought him a big box of chocolates.
Johnson was the humble guest of honor, receiving visitors with wit and charm. He waited until he was in the comfort of his mobile home to dive into the chocolates.
“He always saw the glass as half full and felt he was the luckiest guy in the room,” his niece said. “He did as much as he possibly could in his situation. He’s an inspiration for people to not pity themselves.”
Johnson is also survived by his sons Ken, of Vancouver, Washington, and James, of Juneau, Alaska; six grandchildren and one great-grandchild; and a brother, Harold, of Gig Harbor.
A celebration of life will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Crystal Tree Village clubhouse, 16600 25th Ave. NE, Marysville.