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Dr. Ken Johnson left behind trail of love and generosity

Dr. Ken Johnson left behind trail of love and generosity

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On Nov. 15, 2019, at the first philanthropy awards presented by the Benton Community Foundation, Dr. Ken Johnson, a retired Corvallis dentist, was honored for his volunteer fundraising work.

Video presentations were prepared for each of the nine honorees. In his Johnson spoke of the power of giving.

”I’ll put my little drop of water in the bucket, and if we all do that it’s going to fill up,” Johnson said.

Shortly after the ceremony Johnson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he died Jan. 6 in Corvallis, a Corvallis that most assuredly contains fuller buckets because Johnson chose to live, work and volunteer here.

“Oh, God, Ken left an indelible mark in the community,” said Dr. Scott Travelstead, a fellow dentist and part of the innovative free dental clinic that Johnson started in 2008 at the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis. “He will be missed in so many ways. He had a lot of passions, and Corvallis is going to miss that.”

“Ken had a special knack of making you feel like you mattered, that he genuinely was interested in you, what you were doing, where you wanted to go in your life, and always offered to help or make a connection when he could,” said Helen Higgins CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis.

“He was interested in helping people and using his God-given talent to make the world a better place,” said Amanda Lindsey, the dental clinic coordinator at the Boys & Girls Club. “There will never be another Ken Johnson. He was the gold standard for service above self.

“I love him and we’re all going to miss him.”

Early days  

Born in Harvey, Illinois, in 1938 Johnson and his family moved to Oregon in 1947, settling in Tillamook. Johnson graduated from Tillamook High School in 1956 and moved on to college life, already with the firm idea of becoming a dentist. A bachelor’s from the University of Oregon, a dental degree from Oregon Health Sciences University and two years of service in the U.S. Air Force in Guam followed, and then Johnson moved to Corvallis in 1965 to start his practice.

Johnson worked tirelessly to serve his Corvallis patients but also made frequent international trips in which he provided free dental care. All along he had a dream of putting together a free dental clinic in Benton County.

Johnson retired in 2001 and by 2007 says Lindsey, “he was nice and bored and approached Helen.”

“He was deeply affected to know that children were living with dental pain and suffering and wanted to put an end to a problem that has lifelong impact for that child,” said Higgins.

“It was unheard of,” said Travelstead of the free dental clinic concept, which remains a Corvallis-Benton County resource that few communities can match.

Since opening in 2008 the clinic has served 12,000 patients, Higgins said. And not just needy children. Club parents, pregnant women, people coming down from Portland. The clinic, fueled by Johnson’s vision, served all of them.

“He was a doer,” said Travelstead. “He had that instinctive ability of how to put ideas into motion and action until they came out the way he wanted.”

Lindsey noted that he had a special way with patients, particularly younger ones. And it usually involved humor … or magic tricks.

“He was a jokester,” Lindsey said. “Everything he did, every endeavor, he was always light-hearted and put everyone at ease. You never knew you were working because we had so much fun.

“Working with kids is always stressful, but he had a way of putting his patients at ease and gaining their trust.”

And his co-workers.

“I’m blessed,” Lindsey said. “There’s not a day in which I get up and go to work that I don’t love my job.”

The teen center

Higgins and her Boys & Girls Club staff, meanwhile, soon saw another mountain to climb … how to do a better job assisting with the health needs, particularly in the mental health realm, of youth in the club’s teen program.

The teen group overall was doing well, with club officials noting with deserved pride that 100% of the teens who took part graduated from high school.

But the mental health component still was missing, along with the added challenge of capacity – the club could serve far more teens if it had more space.

Enter Ken Johnson and Ken Pastega and the Starkers and the Duerksens and the Brautis. And dozens of others.

“He used that same passion to get behind the teen center because he has seen the pain that mental health causes for youth and their families,” Higgins said. “So he put his name and his energy behind helping to raise nearly $7 million to create a youth-centric medical home on our campus. The only model of its kind in the state and in our region.  So much to be proud of, and a legacy that will carry on for decades.”

The campaign had some setbacks, including the loss of a major fundraising source. And sometimes it seemed that the numbers on the wipe board in Higgins' office, showing how much money still needed to be raised, were daunting. But Johnson, Higgins and others kept at it and the dream continued.

On April 18, 2017 ground was broken for what would become the Ken and Dot Johnson Center for Youth Excellence. Johnson was on hand, of course.

He sang, belting out a stirring rendition of “It Was a Very Good Year.” Johnson also told a story about how his father took him aside at breakfast at the age of 13 to encourage him to live a life that would ‘make a difference.’”

The difference-makers triumphed, and on Sept. 6, 2018, a breezy, sunny Friday, more than 200 people, including Johnson, gathered outside the glittering new teen center, two stories totaling 20,000 square feet, to celebrate its opening. Capacity of the club's teen program, which started with 25 kids in 2007, was increased to 150.

Other pursuits

Johnson was active in other realms. Although not, technically, a Beaver, he was a huge Beaver backer, hosting parties for sports teams, with a strong emphasis on supporting the up and coming women’s basketball team.

He also performed his fair share of dental surgeries on Beaver athletes, said John Byrne, president of OSU from 1984-95. Byrne, who still lives on Corvallis, has OSU roots that go back to 1960, right before Johnson started his dental practice.

“He was a real supporter of OSU,” Byrne said, who added, jokingly, “we had some doubt about him early on in Corvallis because he went to the University of Oregon. There was a little bit of hesitation, but he adapted to the town and the town adapted to him.”

Byrne said that most of Johnson's contributions involved sweat and effort rather than cash. "He said, 'I make my contributions by taking care of people.' "

Byrne and his family were patients, and Byrne gives Johnson credit for fixing gaps in his teeth.

“He was a great dentist, but he thought I was crazy because I never took Novocain.”

Byrne also praised Johnson for his “tinkering” ability, noting he often distributed home-made gifts to friends and family.

Byrne accompanied Johnson on some of his overseas trips and recalls one occasion when Johnson thrilled a crowd in China with his “mixed bag” trick. The dentist passed around a bag and audience members put in pieces of colored cloth.

“Then he did his ‘abracadabra’ thing and out came an American flag and a Chinese flag tied together,” Byrne said. “The Chinese thought that was terrific.”

“It’s always sad when a good friend dies,” Byrne said. “He was a very loving sort of guy, thinking about other people all the time. He was loved in this town.”

“He showed me what it means to volunteer your time,” Travelstead said. “Just working with him and watching him, how he handled himself. He introduced me to a lot of incredible people. Just a great example of the type of person you wanted to be.”

“He was a doer,” Higgins said, mirroring the language of others interviewed for this story. “Ken showed me that if you want to solve a problem, or make a difference, you need to get started. He just didn’t let any grass grow under his feet. His style was to pick up the phone, in the moment, and call his friends and contacts, and then proceed to tell them how they were going to get involved to be a part of making good happen.

“The outpouring of love for Ken has been incredible on social media so far — everyone shares a similar story of his compassion, helpfulness, willingness to be silly and laugh, or make you laugh. He really was larger than life. He really liked people, and his biggest hope was that others would model his good deeds and generosity.”

Contact reporter James Day at or 541-812-6116. Follow at or


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