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Gator Games great time for senior athletes

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

After Charles Truman Johnson moved here 12 years ago from Pennsylvania, he eagerly became a participant in the Brunswick County Gator Senior Games. In 12 years of competition, he has won 36 medals—35 of them gold.

And Johnson, 82, once again will be a competitor in the games, sponsored by Brunswick County Parks and Recreation, which take place April 8 through May 11.

“The county runs a tremendous program,” Johnson said. “This is the greatest county for recreation. Those people are the best.”

Johnson has never lost in the football throw (through hoops at different distances) and the softball throw (how far and how close to a line). He has won all but once in the basketball-shooting contest (make as many baskets as you can from different parts of the court).

Those are just three of the more than 80 events in which seniors 55 and older can compete. (Call Khrystye Haselden at 253-2670 or e-mail her at khaselden@brunsco.net about how to enter and the sites.)

“Now, they have a couple hundred participants in this,” Johnson said. “This thing is big. It is really big. It is well run. They have an (opening) ceremony where a couple of people walk in with a torch, like the Olympics.”

Johnson’s background is as interesting as his 12 years of excellence in the games.

He was drafted when he was 18—before he finished high school—and served in World War II in the Philippines. Several years later, he was part of the occupation force in Korea.

When Johnson returned from duty in World War II, “they gave me my (high school) diploma and then I went to college (at Lock Haven State College).

“When I went to college, I had a pretty tough time of it because I had malaria really bad from being in the Philippines. I was weighing about 130, 140 pounds. I used to weigh what I do now, 175 pounds. But I still played on the college baseball team.”

Johnson was a pitcher and a left fielder—mainly a left fielder.

“We had a very good college team,” he said. “My college coach wouldn’t let me pitch because I was too wild. He said, ‘I’m not going to let you give me a heart attack.’ ”

Nonetheless, two teams gave him tryouts: the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Athletics. But that was the extent of his professional baseball experience.

Professionally, Johnson was a teacher (social studies) and coach (junior high school basketball). During the Cold War era, he worked for the federal government in health mobilization, making sure hospitals were prepared “in case of nuclear attack.”

He also was a regional FEMA director for five states. He has testified before Congress about disaster preparedness.

The highlight of his professional career came in June 1972 in Pennsylvania during Hurricane Agnes.

“I was working for the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania,” he said. “We evacuated entire cities.”

The hurricane affected 12 states, but it hit Pennsylvania the hardest. As much as 18 inches of rain fell in two days, according to archived reports on the Web. Flooding and fires in Pennsylvania destroyed 68,000 homes and left 220,000 people homeless. The hurricane caused an estimated $2.1 billion of damage. Forty-eight people died.

“I have pictures of graveyards where hundreds of caskets were floating around and were in the trees,” Johnson said.

For his work during this devastating time, the Pennsylvania Senate awarded Johnson the Distinguished Service Medal. It remains his proudest moment.

Johnson has already established a proud record in the senior games. Gold medalists are eligible to compete in the North Carolina Senior Games in the fall in Raleigh.

“Although they have been after me (to go), I have never done it,” he said.

He went to the N.C. Senior Games one time in a different sport, golf.

“And I found out there were a lot of golfers better than me,” he said.

Johnson has a more pleasant memory about golf, and it involves Dwight Eisenhower.

“I was teaching in York County,” Johnson said, “and one of the teachers was a member of the Gettysburg Country Club. Eisenhower was living at his farm in Gettysburg. And they warned us when he shows up, you let him through. Well, he showed up and we played two holes with him. I’ll never forget he had a blue cart—a big blue cart—with a white surrey on top.

“He was a real gentleman. He only played the holes he liked. He was here and he was there. He would come back through. We let him though a couple of times.”

Johnson is thankful his health allows him to be active in senior athletic events. If he wins any gold medals this year, he may accept the offer to compete in the state senior games.

“I was thinking about it,” he said. “I have recovered from a lot of things back in World War II, and I am in pretty good health. In fact, I was practicing today a little bit, shooting the baskets and throwing the football.”

Johnson regularly exercises, and he might be good competition in these games for someone several years younger.

“I ride a one-speed bicycle every morning,” he said. “And I have some exercise equipment here at home. I work out about an hour every day.

“About five years ago I had a bad back. I asked my doctor, ‘What’s your diagnosis?’ He said, ‘Too many birthdays.’ ”

MICHAEL PAUL is the sports editor at the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or at sports@brunswickbeacon.com.