At 106 years of age, Medford resident Birdie Johnson's good health, quick humor and knack for Scrabble continues to amaze visitors more than half her age.
While many seniors are on a plethora of medicines by the time they reach their mid-70s, the centenarian uses only eye drops. Her hearing has faded a bit in recent years, and she uses a walker for stability, but she hears and walks as well as folks 20 years her junior.
On the day Birdie was born, Nov. 9, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt made history by being the first sitting U.S. president to make an official trip outside the country when he traveled to Panama to inspect the progress being made on the Panama Canal.
A South Dakota native, the petite, 5-foot-tall woman may be the Rogue Valley's oldest resident. Truth be told, she finds the prospect of a Scrabble opponent more exciting than inquiries about the number of decades she's lived.
"When they find out how old I am, everyone wants to know how I lived that long," says Johnson, almost sighing.
"I guess I just kept living. Then they always ask, 'What's your secret?' Well, I don't have one. I didn't do anything any different than anyone else would. I've just always been healthy. And the good Lord just took care of me."
The grandchild of English immigrants who trekked from New York to South Dakota after the Civil War, Johnson grew up in rural Mansfield, S.D., population 93, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. She has 13 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.
Born Birdie Elizabeth Kingsley Nov. 9, 1906, Johnson was the youngest of four boys and two girls. Growing up on a farm, she did her share of dishes as a young girl but claims she was "spoiled" from being asked to do very little on the family property.
At age 20, she married Theodore "Ted" Johnson, and the couple raised four children, moving to Oregon in 1937.
"It was the Great Depression and Great Drought back in the Midwest, and times were real hard," says Johnson. "We had relatives out here who found work, and we thought we could find work also."
Roland Johnson, the couple's second-oldest child, recalls living in a pair of tents above Griffin Creek when the family first moved to Oregon, his father cutting cords of wood for the old Griffin Creek School and living in various rural communities in the Rogue Valley.
Wherever they lived, Johnson remembers his mother's kind, humble nature and focus on caring for her family, even when she spent time working in area packing houses, never seeming to have a bad day.
"I was the child who asked so many questions. She'd always answer, and then I'd have to ask, 'Why?' " says Johnson with a laugh. "But she was always very patient and always kind. Even when she was busy, she always took time for us."
After Ted Johnson, who retired from Timber Products, passed away in 1988, Birdie Johnson lived in an apartment on her own until earlier this year, working for a number of years at the Senior Surprise Store in downtown Medford. Her lifespan, a decade and a half longer than her own mother, has prompted plenty of interest and even some suspicion.
"After she had turned something like 104, the people from the Social Security Administration showed up at her door," says grandson Larry Johnson.
"People live to be 100 or 101, but at 104 they wanted to make sure someone wasn't scamming her checks. Some people might be offended, but not Grandma. She was very hospitable and had a nice long chat with them."
The younger Johnson, 55, says his grandmother changed very little in his own half-century, always finding humor or life's lessons in most situations.
As a child, he climbed a prized laurel tree he'd been told to stay out of and got stuck.
"Grandma told me, 'I said not to climb it,' " he recalls. " ' Now, you got yourself up there, you can figure out how to get yourself down!' "
When Birdie Johnson fell in her bathtub a few years back, she laughed at her misfortune and showed off a photo snapped by neighbors of her patiently awaiting rescue, lying on her side in the bathtub.
"She just never became like a cranky, old person," says Larry Johnson. "She kept getting older but never cranky like a lot of people."
Disinterested in questions about her age, Birdie Johnson insists she has no secret wisdom to impart. She busies herself with activities at her assisted-living facility, plays Scrabble, writes poems and occasionally plays piano.
"I don't understand the big deal," she says. "There must be some people around here that are older than me."
When an interested reporter offers up questions during a Scrabble match, she retorts, "Usually when I play Scrabble, that's it. I don't talk or do other things at the same time."
Larry Johnson laughs, acknowledging his grandmother's matter-of-fact nature.
"If you had to sum Grandma up, she just always has been who you see right now," he says.
"She lived life rather plainly by some people's viewpoint, but with so much joy and happiness. Family always meant a lot, and she has always been a kind soul."
He adds, "I think those simple, wholesome things are the things that seem to be lacking in the world we live in nowadays. We feel very lucky to have had her for as long as we have."