'I'll take what I have': Regina man celebrates 100th birthday with dozens of friends

Norman Johnson enjoys a slice of cake at his 100th birthday on Friday.  (Nicholas Frew/CBC - image credit)
Norman Johnson enjoys a slice of cake at his 100th birthday on Friday. (Nicholas Frew/CBC - image credit)

It's not every day someone celebrates their 100th birthday — but Friday was like any other for Norman Johnson.

Johnson, on the arm of his daughter, walked off the elevator at the Renaissance Retirement Residence in downtown Regina to the sound of bagpipes. Dozens of his neighbours were waiting for him, applauding as he walked toward a table with a large banner behind it that read, "Happy 100th Birthday!"

"To tell you the truth, being 100 doesn't make any difference," he said. "The day before, the day after, you'll just be the same."

The world around him has changed, though.

In 1923, William Lyon Mackenzie King was serving his first term as prime minister; George V was the reigning British monarch; the original Yankee Stadium was built and Time magazine published its first issue.

Johnson is originally from North Shields, a coastal town in northeastern England. When he was born, his family didn't have a household radio.

Nicholas Frew/CBC
Nicholas Frew/CBC

During the Second World War, he served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. He was trained in Saskatchewan and went on to fly dozens of missions, especially over the Pacific near what is now called Myanmar in southeast Asia. He was trained on different aircraft, but mainly flew a Douglas DC-3.

Johnson and his family moved to Regina in 1950, following his sister and brother-in-law — an engineer whose company relocated him to the Prairies.

Johnson arrived ahead of his family, said Anne Gourlay, Johnson's daughter. She was a young girl at the time, but remembers boarding the boat with her mother and sister to eventually join her father.

The Royal Canadian Air Force had tried calling back reserves when the Korean war started in 1950, Johnson recalled. But he made it clear that he was a member of the RAF and that was the end of it.

His piloting days over, Johnson spent his career as a printer, including a stint working for the Regina Leader-Post.

Nicholas Frew/CBC
Nicholas Frew/CBC

Johnson has three children, eight grandchildren, multiple great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild on the way, he said.

The world has changed a lot in Johnson's time. The technology, in particular, is beyond anything he could have imagined, he said. He doesn't envy young people today, though. In fact, he prefers the childhood he had.

Celebrating a century

Johnson did not expect the celebration he received Friday.

"It's overwhelming," he said. "They were hinting all along, but I did not expect this."

Henry Sobchyshyn, president of the Regina branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, saluted Johnson and gifted him with a Queen's commemorative pin and a framed hymn that was sung by the 10th Canadian Battalion at their Thanksgiving service after Vimy Ridge.

MP Michael Kram (Regina-Wascana) delivered a short speech thanking Johnson for his service. The politician also gave him a certificate from the government.

Nicholas Frew/CBC
Nicholas Frew/CBC

The party might have been a surprise, but to some, his longevity is not. Johnson's mother and one of his brothers lived a century, while his younger sister lived to 96, he said.

Genetics aside, Johnson has always looked after his physical health, Gourlay said. He never smoked, rarely drank alcohol and has always lived an active lifestyle — curling into his 90s and still walking on the treadmill and lifting weights.

During the party, Johnson was asked what he might do differently if he could live his life over again.

"I have no idea," he replied to the laughter of the crowd.

"I don't know what would be different because it could be worse, could be better, so I'll take what I have."