Greenville resident honored with 100th birthday party

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 20, 2006

In his lifetime, he's seen two world wars; three rulers on the throne of England, and a man take a walk across the moon. Life has gone from horse-and-buggy days, to the Great Depression, to the era of high technology, from flappers to hippies, yippies to yuppies.

In a century, you can experience a lot of things.

Just ask Herbert Johnson.

Last Wednesday, January 11, the long-time Greenvillian, turned 100 years young.

Time to celebrate

The red-letter day was marked with a big celebration at the Greenville Senior Nutrition Center on Cedar St. There was hardly a parking place to be found that afternoon, as approximately 100 fellow seniors, neighbors, friends, family members and dignitaries arrived to honor the centenarian, who was described as having &#8220a remarkable life great in years and great in accomplishments.”

Clusters of brightly colored balloons and a unique arrangement featuring Skipbo cards (Johnson's favorite card game) caught the eye of well-wishers that afternoon. Hostesses, sporting camellias and wearing the birthday boy's favorite color, red, shared birthday cake, punch and other refreshments with his many guests.

A bevy of cards, letters and gifts were presented to the guest of honor, who greeted his many guests with his trademark smile and gentle humor.

&#8220You all are such sweet people to do this for me,” Johnson, who was once voted Mr. Congeniality at the center, said with a grin as he shook yet another hand.

Honors all around

Johnson received accolades from throughout the community and beyond.

Mayor Pro-Tem Jeddo Bell and Silver-Haired Legislator for the county, Fred Thompson, presented proclamations honoring Johnson on his special day. Special guests from the Area Agency for the Aging also were on hand to present Johnson with gifts.

The birthday boy was also honored with a very special birthday card, read by Mary Braden, senior services director for the City of Greenville.

&#8220This was addressed to me from the White House…I thought, oh, I have friends in high places. Then I saw the card was for Mr. Herbert…it is signed from ‘George and Laura,'” Braden said with a smile.

Later in the day, Johnson would receive personal congratulations from U.S. Senator Richard Shelby at the county's public meeting – altogether a day of high honors for one of Greenville's own.

‘A really big blowout'

&#8220We had a small surprise party for Mr. Herbert when he turned 96. We promised him we would have a really big blowout if he made it to 100…isn't this a great crowd?” Braden said with a grin.

Johnson and his wife of 57 years, Lucille, had both recently been ill with a virus. There was some concern the party for the big &#82201-0-0” might have to be postponed, Braden said.

However, the two rallied and &#8220the show did go on,” with relatives from Johnson's native state of Texas among those on hand to celebrate Mr. Herbert's big day.

Johnson's nephew, Franklin Arthur, spoke of his early memories of his uncle, who hailed from the community of West, Texas.

&#8220I had 26 aunts and uncles…Uncle Herbert is the last one left. I first met him after World War II…he drove up in a brand-new Kaiser car. My dad wondered how he could get a car like that back then, and Uncle Herbert just smiled and said, ‘I saved my box tops.'”

Arthur shared stories of his uncle, the third of nine children and the only boy, leaving home at 12 to become a telegram delivery boy – that is, until his father fetched him back home.

&#8220With all my aunts, I understand he had to leave home in order to get a word in edgewise,” Arthur laughed.

Although he typically spoke to his uncle by phone each Christmas, Arthur said he had not seen his uncle in some 30 years.

&#8220When I heard about this party, I said, ‘We're going,'” Arthur said, choking back a tear.

Just a wanderer

Johnson struck out on his own again at age sixteen, working at cotton mills and post offices in various locales in his home state.

For a number of years, the young man couldn't resist the call of the open road, &#8220hoboing” across the country. He picked up work here and there, in between catching rides on the old steam locomotives.

&#8220In those days, you could buy a bowl of soup and some crackers for 15 cents. I always had enough to keep me fed. I never had to take anything from anybody,” Johnson said.

He moved to Greenville in 1937, and has lived in the Camellia City ever since, calling it &#8220the friendliest town I have ever lived in – and I have lived in a lot of places.”

Johnson worked for many years as an overseer at the old Dan River cotton mill, and enjoyed wielding a line and pole whenever the fish were biting.

He volunteered to join the Army in 1942 and became an instrument flight instructor during WW II.

Leave ‘em laughing

For the last 16 years, he and Lucille have been regulars at the Greenville Senior Center, where he has played many a round of Skipbo and shared his always-sharp sense of humor with his fellow seniors.

His hearing isn't as sharp as it once was, and he moves more slowly than he used to - but those who known him well will tell you Johnson's mind is still quite sharp.

&#8220Sometimes, Mr. Herbert will be playing a hand of cards, and all of the sudden he'll pipe up and say, ‘Hey, I've got one for y'all,' and he'll tell a joke, or a story. He brings things in and reads them to everyone sometimes…he's amazing,” Braden said.

&#8220Mr. Herbert has such a positive outlook on life. He is so optimistic and such a pleasure to be around,” she added.

Cathy Brown, manager of the senior center, said Johnson is a &#8220precious person,” one who means a lot to everyone who gets to know him.

Looking over a display featuring photos of the celebrant from throughout his life, Brown points out a studio shot of Johnson as a baby, wearing a frilly dress (the custom for both baby boys and girls in those days).

&#8220Other than the dress – with that sweet round face and bald head, Mr. Herbert looks just the same, doesn't he,” Brown quips.

Don't let the cherubic facade fool you, however.

&#8220And that man is awfully sharp at the game of Skipbo…around here we call

him ‘Killer Johnson.' You have to be good to beat him,” Brown said.

And while Mr. Johnson didn't have to summon up the energy to blow out any candles this time around, he did rouse himself to share one of his favorite jokes with the crowd and enjoy an after-party game of -what else – Skipbo.

&#8220It's been a very good day,” the tired but still-smiling centenarian said with his trademark sunny smile.