Donald Johnson, 76, is a retired mailman from northern New Jersey. He and his wife, Beverly, moved down here in the 1990s to escape high taxes and be closer to family.
The Johnsons live in the Preston Park area off Williamson Road, in a humble brick bungalow on Yardley Drive.
It’s a bit less humble these days.
On November 20, Donald Johnson erected what may the largest lawn ornament in town — at least so far.
It’s a 16-foot-tall painted-white reindeer, cut out of sheets of plywood, held together via tab-and-slot construction, plus five steel lag bolts.
The 16-point buck is bedecked with a red bow, and held in place with wires attached to 18-inch-long steel stakes taht Johnson pounded into the ground. He added more stabilizing stakes and wires to it last week when we had brisk wind.
It doesn’t yet have a name. But people sure are noticing. It’s almost as tall as his house.
“I don’t think there’s anything like it in Roanoke,” he told me Friday. He can say that again.
Neighbors are going gaga. Drivers passing by in their cars are pulling over to take pictures, or giving rolling thumbs up. It belongs in the newspaper, people are telling him.
Johnson walked outside to one admiring couple. “I said, ‘What do you think?’ and they said, ‘Oh, we love it!’ ”
The project caps decades of hobby woodworking by Johnson, who looks and sounds a lot like the great comic actor Art Carney, who played Norton in “The Honeymooners.”
The bug bit Johnson more than 20 ago when he was still delivering letters door-to-door in the suburbs of New York City.
He saw an ad for a scroll saw, a stationery power tool that allows wood smiths to cut finely detailed designs. So he bought one.
As the hobby progressed, he added a band saw, a miter saw, a drill press, a planer, a wood lathe. These tools and related woodworking bric-a-brac are crammed into his three-room basement.
His pride and joy is a table saw specially designed so that it won’t cut off fingers. Johnson’s right thumb is a testament to the fact it works.
Over the years, he’s made a couple of end tables, a couple of entertainment centers, many shelves, a couple of incredibly intricate cuckoo clocks, some chess sets and many gifts for friends.
Lately he’s been fashioning miniature nativity scenes. The manger is no more than 3 inches tall. The figures themselves stand an inch and a quarter high.
The reindeer was inspired by a pattern Johnson spotted in a mail-order catalog. Work on it commenced in February. It required six sawhorses, a hand-held jigsaw and a drill, six 4×8 sheets of plywood and giant carbon paper (for tracing the pattern). All told, Johnson figures he’s got $300 invested in it.
“I did it all the in the driveway, a little bit at a time,” he said. “I didn’t work constantly on it. In June, me and my grandson put some of it together.”
I suspect Johnson may be onto something; that his reindeer could inspire legions of other home woodworkers to build even bigger and more elaborate front-yard monuments.
This could be the dawn of an oversized lawn ornaments race.
What better place for that, truly, than Roanoke?
Sixty-two years ago this fall, our city’s merchants came together to build and flip the switch on the Mill Mountain Star, the biggest free-standing, neon-lighted Christmas ornament ever.
That bold Christmas-shopping promotion redefined the “Magic City” as “Star City of the South.” Today, it’s Roanoke’s most beloved icon.
In more recent years, we have feted a Statue of Liberty in a back yard in Deyerle, a big (and controversial) rooster down near Smith Mountain Lake, and a patriotic character who remade his Yugo into a giant rolling bald eagle.
Mini-Graceland, a side-yard replica of Elvis’ mansion along Riverland Road southeast, is one of Roanoke’s most offbeat and cherished tourist attractions (though it has seen far better days).
Certainly there must be some other woodworkers out there, with gleams in their eyes and dreams of something bigger and even more eye-catching than Johnson’s 16-foot-tall reindeer.
Who’s going to top him, with a 17-foot-tall lawn ornament? Or one that’s 25 feet tall?
Let the competition begin.