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110 ... and counting

Helen Johnson celebrates her 110th birthday today, reaching a milestone few dare dream of
by: Photo courtesy of Karen Lee, Helen Johnson, born July 20, 1896, in Germany, has contributed at least part of her long life to being able to look on the bright side of things. Johnson will celebrate her big day with 40 or 50 members of her family and other residents of Markham House Retirement Community on Saturday.

Close your eyes for a moment and try to picture 40,150 days … 5,720 weeks … 1,320 months … 110 years. Sound like a long time? Just ask Beaverton resident Helen Johnson, who celebrates the big 1-1-0 today.

Johnson, born in Germany just before the turn of the 20th century, has seen a lot in her extended lifetime. But something she never lost during all her years on this planet is a zest for life. Just ask Pam Steimonts, who works at Markham House Retirement Community and affectionately refers to Johnson as 'The Queen.'

'She's delightful, funny, always makes you feel better,' Steimonts said of the woman believed to be Oregon's oldest citizen. 'She's not judgmental. She accepts people for who they are.'

Though Johnson has lived at Markham House for the past decade or so, she moved to the Portland area while in second grade and has lived here for pretty much all of her life.

She said she does not remember much about arriving in America with her parents and brother in 1900, but knows they came through Ellis Island because 'in those days, everyone had to go through there.'

Some of the hobbies she enjoyed during her life include playing cards (especially Bridge), shopping downtown (she was a frequent face at Nordstrom and Meier and Frank) and gardening (at one time she had about 20 rosebushes under her care).

She also has a lot of good memories to keep track of: going to beautician school; falling in love with her first husband when she saw the 'sun shining on his blond, golden hair'; and going on a Riverboat Cruise up and down the Mississippi. She said her favorite, though, is when she gave birth to her second child and heard her husband exclaim, 'Oh, it's a little girl, and a pretty one, too!'

As a centenarian, Johnson's life has taken on a much slower pace. Except for an occasional game of Bridge, Johnson is no longer able to continue many of the activities she used to love so much. One thing that has remained constant, however, is her positive attitude.

'Just try to be happy, look on the bright side of things,' she said. 'Know when they're bad, they'll get better.'

Johnson's granddaughter Karen Lee said she has always known her grandmother to be optimistic, which is not always easy for people of any age.

'Day-to-day living, she doesn't fret too much,' Lee said. 'She's pretty much an even keel. She doesn't get upset about things.'

Lee also said Johnson has a lot of mental stability left and has been able to avoid the major illnesses and accidents that tend to plague others as they age.

At the age of 109, she still wore contacts and makeup, got her hair done, watched television and read the newspaper every day.

'I am amazed by her every day,' Lee said. 'She is like the Energizer Bunny.'

In order to celebrate Johnson reaching such a huge milestone, her family has planned a party/open house at Markham House on Saturday. Lee said they are expecting 40 or 50 relatives to show up, which will include most of Johnson's six grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. Residents of the retirement house will also be in attendance.

While Johnson said her birthday is just like any other day, she is very excited about seeing all her family at the open house.

'They're a wonderful, loving family. All of them,' she said. 'They're all good people; that's the main thing.'

Lee Hess, general manager of Markham House, said in all the years Johnson has been at the retirement community she has not changed much at all; even her weight has stayed the same. Her good attitude has also remained constant throughout that time, which Hess said she believes is one of the contributors to her long life.

'She's always been kind of easygoing,' Hess said. 'I think it all boiled down to attitude.'