‘The Turtle Man’ is a nickname that likely few people have, but it’s one that Gig Harbor resident Roger L Johnson is proud to have bestowed upon him. It’s not because he is all knowing about the species, has a long neck and wears a shell, or is obsessed with the 1980s cartoon, but rather for the turtles you might have seen all over town or in your friends’ homes.Roger spends his day creating gifts for people he knows, and many whom he doesn’t. Those gifts are hand-painted turtles he designs out of rocks he finds along the beaches in and around Gig Harbor.
“About five years ago, I found some pancake-shaped beach stones and painted them to look like ladybugs,” recalled Roger. “As I handed them out to various women friends and relatives, the reception was so great that I decided that I should come up with a more complex animal that everybody loved. It was Elizabeth—my wife and soulmate of 53 years—who suggested a turtle.”
Over the last few years Roger has upped the design and creativity from the first few he created, and now his turtles feature colorful and elaborate shells, as well as feet and toes. The "Herd of Turtles" are now a Gig Harbor icon as Roger has gifted them to cancer survivors, local businesses and those he observes doing a kindness or good deed for another person. Besides the US Bank, his turtles are displayed at the reception desk at Saint Anthony's Hospital, the Napa Auto Parts store near the Gig Harbor Post Office, at the Anti-Coagulation Lab in the medical building on Point Fosdick, the library, Graff's Automotive on Point Fosdick and the Pacific Northwest Eye Association. You will also find them at the Milgard Breast Center in Tacoma, at the Multi-Care Breast Care center across from the Gig Harbor Library, and many other locations. The rest of the more than 200 gifted turtles live in private homes between Tacoma and Port Angeles, and several as far away as Denmark and the Philippines.
Getting the turtles into the hands of those who help out their community with acts of kindness, volunteerism and those battling for their life is especially rewarding for Roger. “When I hand out one of my special pink turtles to a cancer patient, the reaction is always hugs and tears. My favorite memory is of a young woman at our bank who had undergone a double mastectomy and was facing over a month of radiation,” said Roger. “The turtle kept her company through the ordeal. Yes—thank God—she survived.”
The turtles are keeping Roger busy in retirement as well as his other passion—writing. A Vietnam veteran who served as a Naval Aviator aboard the aircraft carriers USS Ticonderoga, USS Enterprise and USS Midway, Roger contributed several articles in Approach, the Navy's flight safety magazine. Once finished with his active military service, Roger became a firefighter, eventually retiring as captain from Cal Fire at Klamath. He has called Gig Harbor home since 2003.
Since his retirement, Roger has authored eight books and is in the process of working on several more, all the while devoting additional time to creating and spreading his turtles around town. Each turtle begins as beach rock—selected carefully for just the right size and shape. Then, with clear epoxy, the four legs, 16 toes, neck and head are attached. The next step is to fill in the gaps with exterior-grade spackle from the local Ace Hardware store, and then once everything is perfect, the turtle is finished with waterproof Rustoleum paint so that it can withstand the elements. Each turtle takes approximately five hours to make, and Roger has donated more than 200 of them in the last three years alone.
While most of the turtles are painted in the typical turtle colors, Roger will get creative for special occasions. Last spring, Roger sent President Trump and First Lady Melania each a turtle for his birthday. The president's turtle is painted red, white, blue and gold, while Melania's turtle is the same as those found around Gig Harbor. Roger received a personal "Thank You" note from the president and first lady. Besides the standard turtles that are down on all fours, Roger has made a half dozen special turtles for people who have given him the gift of friendship. These special turtles sit upright and hold computers, mechanic tools, doctor implements and other specialized objects unique to the recipient’s profession.
When people around town come across the turtles in businesses, homes, care facilities and offices, they often ask where they might find and purchase one. Why doesn't Roger sell his turtles? Roger's answer is always the same. “The reason I will never sell my turtles is because it would turn an act of kindness into a business, and I never want that. When I see a person being polite or helpful to someone else in need, or I see a person in stress, I hand them a Gift Turtle. My reward—not that I need one—is seeing the happiness on their face."
Roger’s acknowledgement of those doing polite, kind, considerate and helpful things is something not often seen by today’s standards. "How many of us have expressed anger and become enemies over ever-changing political issues, participated in online bullying and used name-calling and rudeness in a self-destructive attempt to elevate ourselves above others?” asked Roger. “I have chosen the Gift Turtles as my way to combat this anger and resentment in my community."
Roger Johnson has redefined kindness as the quality of being friendly, generous, considerate and giving away works of art to put a smile on people’s faces. He would like to leave you with this message: "We don’t all have to devote hundreds of hours to be kind. Simple gestures like holding a door open for someone, allowing a mother with small kids to go ahead of you in line or bringing your office mates coffee and donuts in the morning can start a chain-reaction of kindness and caring. Your actions in public, kind or otherwise, will be noted by others, and you don’t always know who is watching. Try doing a few more good deeds, and you just might find yourself with a new turtle to keep you company."