I’ve heard of weird hobbies, but this one is the leader in the clubhouse.
Akron resident Dean Johnson, 87, has a large collection of ... I’m serious here ... knotholes.
A chain-saw maven, Johnson started collecting them more than 40 years ago and today owns what is quite likely the largest knothole collection in Northeast Ohio. Or, just as likely, in the whole world. Who collects knotholes?
It should come as no surprise that Guinness World Records hasn’t weighed in on this.
The only Guinness record involving knotholes belongs to Mike Morrow, who on April 10, 2005, scored an absolutely amazing (I assume) 617 points in the Knothole Archery Contest in a Fable video game.
Just thought you’d like to know.
Anyway, our man Dean owns so many knotholes that he has mounted the best ones on four large boards, the better to display them in art shows.
Once again, I am serious. Not only did he show off his collection at the Summit County Fair one year but toted it down to Canton for an art show at First Friends Church.
The reviews, he admits with a laugh, were decidedly mixed.
“That’s not art,” one viewer grumbled.
But any bad public vibes Johnson collected in Canton are offset a zillion-fold by the good vibes he has collected throughout the nation and the world thanks to another hobby that he pursued vigorously for decades: helping clean up after natural disasters.
Johnson was the co-founder, with his late wife, Freeda, of Friends Disaster Service, a local group of volunteers that swings into action to assist with recovery efforts after hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and fires.
They heard the calling after a monstrous F-5 tornado flattened most of Xenia in the spring of 1974. After looking at photos of the devastation in his favorite newspaper, Johnson approached fellow members of Boston Heights Friends Church and told them he thought they needed to do something.
Eighteen members headed to the town, an hour southwest of Columbus, and went to work.
The Johnsons spent the next 32 years dashing off to disasters. The Guatemala earthquake. Shadyside. Hurricane Andrew. Hurricane Katrina.
And not just the big ones. Rebuilt a burned-down barn in Berlin. Repaired roofs in Stow. More projects than you can even count.
Well, you could count them, truth be told, because they are listed at the end of a fancy 320-page oversized paperback the family put together about the group’s recovery efforts, It’s About Restoration: Stories of Heartbreak and Tragedy Restored by Acts of Love.
But the list of missions goes on for four pages, and I’m just too busy thinking about knotholes to count them.
So how, exactly, did he develop this jones for knotholes?
A native of Belmont County, Ohio’s Appalachia, Dean migrated to Akron with his wife for a job at East Ohio Gas. He supplemented his income with a small landscaping business and nursery behind the family home in Peninsula, on a 5-acre tract not far from state Route 8.
“We had a nursery right here and had a state license,” he says, standing next to a large shed on a brisk Tuesday afternoon.
“Then when the Cuyahoga Valley National Park came — we’re 250 feet off the boundary of the park — the deer just exploded and wiped out my nursery.”
He quickly segued into another business.
“I was watching Davey Tree take a tree down, and I thought, ‘I can do that!’ So I did a lot of climbing. In Hudson, when the elm trees were dying, our family did probably hundreds. We outbid all of the professionals.”
And they did it the old-fashioned way. As his son Steve notes: “It was old school. Not a bucket. Spurs and belts and ropes.”
But his father zeroed in on knotholes well before that.
“I got one of the first [one-person] chain saws that came out,” Dean says. “I starting seeing knotholes and somehow they intrigued me. So I’d slice them off and save them.
“Then I’d go, ‘What in the heck am I going to do with them?’?”
Collect ’em. Mount ’em. Show ’em off. And, eventually, give ’em away.
After a heart attack in June, he agreed to move in with one of his daughters in Firestone Park.
He is reluctantly selling the property where he lived for half a century and looking for a new home for his knotholes.
The Korean War vet gifted one to his favorite columnist and is offering the rest of them free to the first person who asks. (If you’re nutty about knotholes, call him at 330-294-0873.)
Perhaps because there’s no world record to be had, Johnson hasn’t counted his knotholes, but he estimates the total at 75.
Dean Johnson’s longest-lasting legacy will not, of course, involve knotholes. He will be known for his ongoing selflessness.
As a devout churchgoer, the general trajectory of his life was no coincidence.
“They say most people want to live a good life, accumulate everything they can, and then make it to the funeral home with a good-looking corpse,” he says, eyes bright through large glasses. “The Christian man wants to give, serve and then, at the end of his life, come sliding in sideways yelling, ‘Wow, what a ride!’?”
His will have been a great ride with a nutty footnote.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31