Orson Johnson just celebrated his 95th birthday and now holds title to the oldest living man in Rush Valley, Utah, his family says.
But to earn that title, he first cheated death — twice — as a young boy.
As the sixth and youngest child by an eight-year gap, Orson enjoyed a lot of freedoms. He grew up wandering the hills of Ophir, where he was born, and his grandparents’ farm in Clover (now Rush Valley) — the farm he now owns. He still lives there today.
His favorite childhood memory was when he was six years old. His parents had given him an air-gun for Christmas. He was the only boy with a gun in the neighborhood and he would often go around shooting magpies out of the trees.
“My mother once told me, ‘Orson. I never see you until you’re hungry,’” he said.
Orson was returning from one of his shooting adventures on his grandparents’ farm when he had his first brush with death. He crossed through a fence to get to his grandparents’ house and came up behind a spirited and jittery colt. The horse kicked him on the left side of his forehead.
Orson knew that if he stayed there no one was going to find him for a while. So, “I got up and walked back to the house on my own,” he said.
That suggests he was OK. But after being examined, the doctors told his parents that he had a fractured skull. He still bears a scar from it, even after all these years. Miraculously, he made a full recovery with no side effects — an example of a tough and determined nature that has helped him throughout life.
Orson’s dad, Edwin, moved the family to the ranch in Rush Valley and took over responsibilities from Edwin’s brother when Orson was 10. His grandma had been widowed for a while and was in poor health.
After the move, Orson had his second near-death experience. His sister, Reeda, who was pregnant with her first child at the time, also lived at the ranch. One morning, she went into early labor. Orson’s mother, Pauline, was using the only car the family had to take Reeda to the hospital. Orson got sick to his stomach that same day and as the day progressed, it became increasingly worse.
“I had a sister, Caroline, who I never met,” Orson said, sadly. “She died of appendicitis when she was 10.”
Orson said his dad was worried that Orson had appendicitis, too. In the early 1930s, there was little chance of recovery if an appendix burst.
Edwin ran from neighbor to neighbor trying to find another car to get Orson to a Salt Lake hospital. Finally, a neighbor gave Edwin his new car to get Orson there. But by the time they arrived at the hospital, his appendix had burst. Yet again, a miracle happened. Instead of dying from untreated appendicitis, he lived.
Orson spent a month living with his aunt in Salt Lake so he could be closer to the hospital. He needed to have frequent checkups to make sure the poison was completely clear and no infections developed.
Orson began school at Stockton Elementary when he was 6. When he moved to the school in Clover at 10, he claims he was the “smartest student in his grade” — but then added he was also the only student in his grade.
Thanks to his education in Rush Valley, Orson met his future wife, Jessie Sagers. Jessie didn’t attend Clover Elementary. She attended St. John Elementary, which was only a couple miles down the road. Even though they were close to one another for many years, they never met until they both started riding the bus to attend Tooele High School.
When asked if he thought she was the prettiest girl on the bus, he smiles and says with confidence “Oh, yeah.” One day, Orson got the courage to ask to sit by her on the bus, and they were devoted to each other ever since.
Orson graduated from Tooele High, but at 18 years old he couldn’t find much work in Utah. He heard about a job in California, building airplanes and shipping them off to England for the war effort against Germany. So, he and two brothers from the same community, Ralph and Calvin Green, headed for Los Angeles.
Soon, Jessie joined him, with a stop-over in Las Vegas to get married. They were only in California about a year when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Jessie was pregnant with their first child and Orson was first on the list to be possibly drafted into World War II. He had passed his physical and feared he would soon be shipped off to the Navy, leaving his wife alone in California. Orson then thought it wise to move back to Rush Valley so Jessie had family nearby in case he got drafted.
He found a local job working as a miner. Whether it was his job, or the fact Orson was soon to become a father for the first time, he was never called to war. He instead worked for his country on the home front.
Orson worked for Dugway Proving Ground for about 25 years as a chemical test operator. One of his jobs was to climb towers to put chemicals on top for different tests. Many towers were more than 300 feet high; one in Texas was up to 1,200 feet. He climbed the towers in full suit and while wearing a gas mask.
The job often allowed him to travel. Besides Texas, he has been to Panama, Alaska, Alabama and Hawaii. He and his wife really loved Hawaii and often went there together when he was stationed longer than a week.
But the ranch was always their true love. In Jessie’s last years of life, her favorite spot was a corner window off of her kitchen. From there she could look down on the large barn on the hill of their property and see what was happening with her children and grandchildren as they worked the ranch.
That corner window has now become a favorite spot for Orson. He wrote a poem for his wife about that window in 1985 called “Our Kitchen Window.”
Orson said the best lesson he ever learned was when he became inactive from the LDS Church. He said one day all three members of his Stake Presidency came to his home to extend a calling for a Sunday school leader. But he felt inadequate to do the job.
“One of the men placed a hand on my shoulder and said ‘We’ll help you,’” Orson said. That showed him the importance of accepting help and giving help. His life then became a mission of “rescuing souls” just like he was rescued.
He always has tried to be a good neighbor and wanting to help his community, his family says. One way he has helped out is hiring local youth throughout the years to work on his ranch. He tries to teach them through employment what it means to put in a hard day’s work, finish what you start, be on time and be dependable, among other things.
Orson lives by what he calls the “Cowboy Code” of hard work: help your neighbor, be on time and dependable, and always finish what you start.
He has found being a good example is the best way to teach youth. He has used that approach with his family, too. He is proud of how his children and grandchildren have turned out. He said his children didn’t really ever get themselves in trouble.
But his son, Darrell, chuckled and said, “I’m glad you think that Dad.”
Despite being 95 years old, Orson still works to set an example for the people around him. He is independent and still shovels the walkway leading to his home. He also makes daily phone calls to friends and family to check on their well-being.
He is also 100 percent involved in his Home Teaching responsibility. Devoted is what this man is, and love is what he shows to the ones around him. He is truly an example of a good way to live.
And to think, he almost wasn’t around to make it all happen.
The Cowboy Code according to Orson Johnson
1. Live each day with courage: When asked how things are going, Orson gave a big smile and said, “I still get up in the morning.” He also greets each day with a goal. He wants to stay as independent as possible. He still drives. And he is still able to stay in his own house with help from his kids. The biggest struggle for him has been living without his wife for six years. She was the love of his life and it has taken courage to face each day without her. He guesses there must be more for him to do.
2. Take pride in your work: Always do your best, Orson said. Since the ranch first began, the Johnsons have always hired ranch hands from the local community to help out. Orson said he would often hire young men who were looking for their first job experience. Ranch work is hard work, but he hoped to instill what it means to put in an honest day’s work, be dependable, finish what you start, and be on time.
3. Do what has to be done: Orson took care of his wife, Jessie, and himself from when Jessie had her leg amputated from side effects of diabetes until she died in 2010. He also helped raise his grandchildren and run the farm. After the death of two of his other sons from an accident and cancer, he kept strong and optimistic to keep his family going forward. Just recently, a neighbor fell ill and called Orson at 2 a.m. to take him to the emergency room. Orson didn’t hesitate to help.
5. Be tough, but fair: Orson has always raised his children to appreciate getting their hands dirty, and appreciate the labor that goes into hard work. Being raised on a farm requires a lot of dedication, and there is always work to do. His children may say the reason why they turned out well is because they had a great example in their dad. He has always believed that an important step in raising children is to be the example of how you want them to be.
6. Keep your promises: Orson made a promise to Jessie when they married at the age of 19 to be devoted to one another. He kept that promise and stayed happily married until she died. His neighbors know they can rely on him. His family depends on him. He is a man who people say “His word is good.”
7. Ride for the brand: Orson is loyal. He has dedicated himself to his family, his ranch, his religion, and his community. He has instilled in his children and grandchildren his deep love for the land. Six generations of the Johnson family have worked the ranch and a seventh is ready to continue the tradition.
8. Talk less and say more: Orson is a man of quiet, humble ways. He doesn’t like attention drawn to him and would rather talk of others than himself.
9. Some things aren’t for sale: The Johnsons have no intention of selling the ranch — ever. It is a part of what has made them. Darrell Johnson’s motto is “Buy, not sale.”
10. Know where to draw the line: Orson is a man who lives his values. He stays true to being good, doing good and bringing the good out in others. He stands for something, and he helps others around him do the same.