An ‘Unshellfish’ Act

Turtles can live for more than a century, but one Gig Harbor man is making turtles that last forever.

Gig Harbor resident Roger L. Johnson has seen and done many things in his life. He has flown U.S. Navy helicopters to destinations both foreign and domestic, and he’s battled infernos for a California fire department.

Since his retirement in 2000 and relocation to the Pacific Northwest in 2003, it’s more likely that you’ll find Johnson strolling Gig Harbor beaches hand in hand with Elizabeth, his wife of 52 years. During their walks, Johnson would pick up flat, smooth stones and marvel at their shapes and textures. “I’d see a rock and I’d just think, ‘Wow, that looks so cool,’” he said.

The couple’s home is scattered with items handcrafted by Johnson throughout the years: The wooden clock that hangs from the wall in the study and chimes every hour, the oil painting of a young Elizabeth that Johnson painted early in their relationship, and intricately carved wooden figurines that line their bookshelves. Ever the craftsman, Johnson said he was compelled to create something from the beach stones.

TurtlesFirst, Johnson tried crafting the stones into tiny ladybugs for Elizabeth. The half dollar-sized insects were adorable enough, but Johnson said the challenge was just not there. “There’s just not much to it. You put the wings on, and the dots … those took maybe 45 minutes or so,” he said.

Hungry for a challenge, Johnson turned to his wife for advice on what to make next. She shrugged and said, “Everyone loves turtles.” So that’s what he made.

Through numerous iterations of beta turtles, Johnson finally perfected his creation. Stones of different sizes are used for the body, head, neck, legs, and toes. A length of clothesline is cut to shape the shell. Everything is attached with epoxy glue, then cemented and smoothed out with spackle. The creation is then artfully decorated with waterproof paint to finish the transformation.

Once a week, Johnson will sit at his dining room table and make two turtles at a time until Elizabeth tells him the herd — lined up in front of the couple’s fireplace, and poised to take over the living room — is getting too large. That’s when the couple gives the tiny four-legged reptiles away.

Initially, the turtles were given to close friends and family for Christmas and birthday presents. A special red, white, blue, and gold turtle went to President Donald Trump on his birthday — and Johnson got a thank-you note in the mail. Then, the duo began keeping extra turtles in the car. “We’d see someone do a kindness, and I’d ask them if they like turtles,” Johnson said.

Now, turtle sightings are happening all over town: The barbershop where Johnson gets his hair cut, the sample stations at Costco, the bank, eye doctor, even a Napa Auto Parts store. Johnson has even begun making pink turtles for women undergoing breast cancer treatment at Carol Milgard Breast Center in Tacoma.

“We should love people and use things, but sadly, most of us love things and use people,” Johnson said. “That is my Christian belief, and that is why I build, and then give away, my turtles.

“I see a woman suffering with cancer, and I give her a pink turtle. I see a person help somebody else when they didn’t have to help, and I give them a turtle with my personal thanks for being kind.”

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is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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