THE NEWS TRIBUNE: A friendship strengthened through tragedy, crafted with a lathe (02/16/2017)
Friday, February 17, 2017
While some friendships can be fleeting — taking place only within a specific time frame or context — other friendships can be lifelong relationships that span decades and transcend even the most traumatic life events.
These established friendships provide stability and comfort throughout our lives and especially while regaining equilibrium after life-altering events.
It is such a friendship that has helped 72-year-old Dennis Johnson following a stroke in 2009 that left him with paralysis on his left side.
“I’m fortunate that I’m right-hand dominant,” Johnson explained.
Taking a medical retirement from his career as a sales representative for Nalley Fine Foods, Johnson found himself facing a retirement much different than he had planned.
“I had looked forward to retiring and doing different things, but I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “Dan really filled a need for me.”
Dan Stromstad, 70, and Johnson have been friends for more than 35 years, beginning at their church, Harbor Covenant, where Johnson taught Sunday school to Stromstad’s children.
“One day (Dan) said, ‘You need something to do other than sit around and watch TV, (and) I’m going to teach you how to do it,’” Johnson said.
Stromstad is a woodturner — and owner of both Harbor Optical and Turned Wood Wonders — and was first introduced to the art form in eighth grade, picking it back up again 15 years ago.
Woodturning is performed by turning the piece of wood on a lathe and using hand-held tools to cut a symmetrical shape around the wood. Items often crafted by woodturning include furniture legs, bowls, candlesticks and pens, among other items.
RStromstad has taught woodturning before and knew that — with some dedication from both Johnson and himself — this was a hobby his friend could successfully learn, despite Johnson’s paralysis.
“For me, this is a piece of cake. My whole business is in hand-eye coordination,” Stromstad explained. “For Dennis to do this with one hand is very difficult. It’s a real challenge.”
Stromstad introduced the idea to Johnson and invited him to attend a meeting of the South Puget Sound Woodturners club, where Stromstad is a member and where Johnson could hear from other woodturners, watch a demonstration and see examples of other members work. Soon, Johnson was ready to try himself.
The first obstacle to overcome was adjusting the lathe down to where Johnson could use the tools required to turn wood. In his own workshop, Stromstad took his own lathe and set it into a specialized mount that he designed to bring the wood to the right height and angle for Johnson to work.
“The normal techniques that I teach didn’t work,” Stromstad said of introducing Johnson to the craft. “I had to figure it out for him.”
As Stromstad figured out how to make woodturning accessible for his friend, Johnson struggled to adjust to his new range of abilities.
“It took me awhile to get used to it ... I had to change my thinking. I tried to keep my mind positive, instead of looking backward at what I used to be able to do,” Johnson said. “It would be so much easier to do with two hands ... (but) you can’t focus on what you can’t do. You have to be focusing on what you can do.”
Adjusting the lathe and familiarizing himself with the tools, Johnson was able to turn several pens with Stromstad’s guidance, and finally a bowl that he gave to his wife, Barbara, for Christmas last year.
Watching Johnson take to woodturning, Stromstad’s next goal was to set up a home shop area for his friend. With support of the Woodturners club, Johnson secured a donation of a lathe and hand tools for Johnson, surprising him with the items during a dinner hosted by him and his wife, Gail, in November 2015.
“I’ve been the stimulator, but Dennis has to do everything,” Stromstad said. “I look at these guys and say, ‘These are the overcomers.’ These are the guys who have the guts and skill to overcome.”
With a woodturning area now set up in his garage, Johnson is able to continue his hobby with minimal help, but prefers working alongside Stromstad.
“Most of the time when I’m (woodturning), Dan’s around,” Johnson said. “I’m a people person. It’s very nice that Dan comes and hangs out with me while I’m doing this. I don’t like doing things by myself.”
With woodturning as a hobby, Johnson also visits the YMCA to exercise (and socialize) and uses his powerchair to attend church and visit with friends in a nearby coffee shop.
“Gig Harbor is a great place to live. The nicest people live here,” he said. “Everybody that I run into are always helpful.”
This comes as no surprise to Stromstad, who knows Johnson to be a popular figure with all ages.
“A lot of people know Dennis because he’s such a nice guy,” he said.
In the years following his stroke, Johnson realized how many other people were in a similar circumstance and was surprised with how often people approached him, whether at the YMCA or around town, to tell him what an inspiration he was to them.
“I just wanted to be normal,” he said. “I sometimes wonder what my purpose is in being alive. People at the (YMCA) say to me, ‘You’re an encouragement to me.’ So I guess it’s to encourage them.”
As Johnson encourages others, he remains supported by those closest to him.
“I have really a wonderful wife. She is living out her marriage vows, in sickness and in health,” he said. “I’m thankful to Dan, who’s helped me turn wood. I’m thankful for my friendship with Dan and Gail.”
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