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George Johnson, 112; World War I Vet Was Oldest Californian

September 01, 2006|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

George Johnson, considered to be the oldest living Californian and the last surviving veteran of World War I residing in the state, has died, according to the Gerontology Research Group at UCLA. He was 112.

Johnson died Wednesday of pneumonia, said Dr. Stephen Coles, a founder of the research group. Blind in recent years, Johnson had continued to live alone in the house in Richmond that he built in 1935. For the last three months, he had been assisted by a housekeeper.

Johnson was the only living Californian known to be a "supercentenarian" -- age 110 or older -- Coles said.

An autopsy is being performed to learn more about his general condition at the time of his death. "George's attitude was that it should be done if there was any good that could come of it, in the interest of science," Johnson's great-grandnephew, Brian Johnson of Naples, Fla., said Thursday.

In looking for consistencies in the cause of declining health of supercentenarians, one commonality found in four recent autopsies could be significant, Coles said. Each autopsy has shown the presence of amyloidosis, a disease characterized by insoluble protein fibers that become lodged in body tissue and organs, interfering with natural functions.

Johnson was born in Philadelphia on May 1, 1894, when few people in the city had electricity in their homes, although there were electric trolley cars.

His father, the manager of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway station in Philadelphia, was of mixed white and African American heritage. His mother was of Norwegian descent.

Johnson married, settled in Philadelphia with his wife, Ida, and was working as a mail sorter for the U.S. Post Office when he was drafted into the Army in 1917. The war ended a year later, and he never served combat duty.

In 1919, after he was discharged from military service, Johnson and his wife moved to Northern California, where her parents had relocated.

"It was a great adventure in those days. We were young and wanted the experience," Johnson said of his cross-country move in an interview with the Contra Costa Times last March.

Johnson and his wife settled in Fresno and remained there until 1935, when they bought property in Richmond to build a new house by hand. They used lumber they salvaged from recently dismantled buildings. Two years later, the view from their windows included the newly completed Golden Gate Bridge.

During World War II, Johnson worked at the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond and later managed the heating plant at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland.

He had remained in good health and continued driving until he was 102, when his vision began to fail. At that point he swore off television and listened to baseball games on the radio.

Johnson's wife died at 96 in 1992. The couple had no children. His survivors include two great-grandnephews and two great-grandnieces.

mary.rourke@latimes.com

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