• Alaska physician celebrates 90 years on Sunday
By Naomi Klouda
As Dr. Walter Johnson ponders his 90th birthday, to be celebrated Sunday, he muses that a person ends up living many lives.
The physician whose life began on a Nebraska farm in 1922, left school in the 8th grade to help tend his dad’s farm, then returned to graduate 1941. He came to Alaska to visit a pen pal that summer, and found a territory bustling with activity that he quickly joined in, working at a gold mine camp, commercial fishing, and then graduating from the University of Fairbanks. As the first graduate of UAF to go Outside earn a medical degree and return to Alaska as a doctor, he began his career in 1954 with the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) in Bethel.
When Johnson retired in 1976 as the clinical director of the Alaska Native Medical Hospital in Anchorage, he had seen a swath of time in rural Alaska health that encompassed the tuberculosis epidemic through to the day when finally no more children were being hospitalized with TB. He came up with the idea for community health aides (in 1956) and later helped found the village health aide system that has ensured medical help in rural Alaska even when a doctor is far away.
Now he lives in Homer with his wife, Judith, and tends to three orchards of some 90 fruit trees.
“Oh, that life. You can live quite a few lives,” Johnson said Friday when asked about his fruit trees. “My mom taught 4-H gardening and I’ve been gardening since I was six years old. I had my first Alaska garden in 1943 in Fairbanks. I always had a relationship with gardening.”
The past few years a colder spring has meant the apples don’t pollinate as well, so the apple crop hasn’t been good. But in past years, Johnson and his wife have harvested up to 1300 pounds of apples.
“We made a lot of apple sauce that year,” he said.
To celebrate Dr. Johnson’s birthday in a bigger way this year, wife Judith James decided to extend an invitation to the larger community to enjoy an outdoor party at their home off McLay Road. People are invited to drop by starting at 2 p.m. Sunday to give their birthday wishes, or to bring a potluck dish and stay awhile. (No gifts, please.)
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