written by Wendy Roberts (Wendell’s daughter) in 2004
A thunderhead was approaching in the heat of an August day, lending an ominous tone to the afternoon. Wendell Johnson was swimming with a group of his friends after a hard day of hauling hay in the gorgeous fields of Mapleton, Utah. As he stood on the embankment ready to dive into the canal, he felt an odd shiver but didn’t pause. Instead, he dove headfirst toward the middle of the canal where the water was deep and cool. At sixteen years age, as his position inexplicably changed in midair, he could not have guessed that life was about to take a drastic turn for the worse. Everyone living in the small rural town of Mapleton at the time remembered what happened that day, August 18, 1964.
The water was muddy, concealing a shallow shelf of clay close to the edge of the water. As Wendell finished what should have been a graceful dive into the depths of the canal, he instead rammed headfirst into the unseen shelf. Immediately he heard a sickening snap and felt absolutely nothing from his neck down. He struggled to swim, but there was no response from his body. The current was dragging him, tossing him helplessly face down in the water. His lungs were quickly becoming starved for air, and he realized that he was about to die. There was nothing he could do as a sound, a rushing in his ears, grew and then faded. His life flashed before his eyes…
To this point, his childhood had been happy and imaginative. He was a war baby, born on March 26, 1948 to his mother, Orpha Dee, and his father Frank Clark Johnson. The family lived in a beautiful house on Main Street in Mapleton. The small town was in its early days then, and not many people had discovered the beauty of living in the shadow of Sierra Bonita (more commonly known as Maple Mountain). Frank (a non-stop workaholic and believer in the eighteen-hour workday) was a construction worker, carpenter, and welder, who knew how to do anything manly and construction-oriented. He had expertly constructed the family home out of a rare yellow brick salvaged from a church he had helped demolish. He had built the house in his “spare time” after work, overseeing everything from the digging of the foundation to the masonry and carpentry. Outside of some help from a team of workhorses to dig out the foundation, it was entirely his own work. Meanwhile, Orpha Dee planted beautiful gardens and orchards around the home transforming a piece of sagebrush-ridden desert to beautiful and lush orchards and gardens.
Wendell had four siblings. Brenda was the firstborn, a beautiful redhead whose talents and intelligence eventually led her into a nursing career. Paul was just younger than Wendell and is one of the few people to challenge Frank for the “Workaholic of the Year” award. He has achieved great success drilling wells and has held various construction jobs in his spare time–just for fun. Morris, the fourth child, is now a hardworking janitor. It is rare to find a person who is as mild-mannered and kind as Morris. The fifth baby, Sylvia, died in infancy of cancer. Her illness was a heart-wrenching ordeal, that although short in span, was cruelly painful. Aside from this tragic loss, the family was closely knit. Frank was an outdoors enthusiast, so the family often opted to go fishing or camping together and Wendell grew to love the outdoors. He also enjoyed playing in the backyard where he spent his time dressing in costume to be Tarzan, Prince Valiant, Davy Crockett, Flash Gordon, Superman, Hoppalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Sky King, John Wayne, the Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers, Daniel Boone, Batman, and a whole host of other heroes, thwarting pretend villains daily.
At school, Wendell had a growing love and talent for art. Even as young as Kindergarten, his artistic tendencies were highly developed. In his autobiography, he stated that instead of fighting the bullies over the much contested building blocks, he would casually spend his recess in the sunny corner of the schoolroom painting with the otherwise ignored and unused easels and paints. Gradually, he became renowned for his artistic prowess and was intricately involved in specialized school projects like murals and paintings. His interest grew, and by high school he was determined to become an architect—the best way to blend his the knowledge of construction that he learned from his father, and his artistic talent fostered by his mother.
That dream was now shattered, as he lay helpless in the water, fighting a losing battle for his life. Suddenly, he felt himself rising. His friend, Ted Cloward, had noticed his limp body, and pulled him from the muddied water. Several friends joined in to drag Wendell onto the dirt road as they waited endlessly for help to arrive. The city ambulance, an Edsel in unquestionably shabby condition, finally arrived and Wendell was agonizingly loaded into the back, only to find that the Edsel would not start up again. It was pushed along the bumpy mountain roads until the engine finally turned over, starting a nightmarish drive to Salt Lake in the days before I-15. It was two hours of searing pain, reinforced with every bump on the road until he reached the hospital. Wendell had always hated the sound of sirens, and now the sirens announced his own misfortune as he was ushered into the kind of crisis that few people ever face.
Upon arrival at Holy Cross hospital, Wendell was immediately wheeled to the emergency room. There, x-rays showed that his neck had been fractured and the spinal cord severed between the fifth and sixth vertebrae. He was now quadriplegic – completely paralyzed from the neck down. To minimize the already devastating damage, doctors administered some local anesthetics and drilled two small holes into Wendell’s skull to attach two hooks. They hung weights on the hooks to stabilize the neck and head. Placed on a striker frame (a special bed with restraints for the arms and legs to allow his body to heal appropriately), Wendell’s set-up apparently looked so bad that a visitor once had to excuse himself before running out the door to vomit. It was a disturbing sight to see him with hooks sticking out of his head. Wendell was completely immobilized, left with a shattered body and tormented soul.
Within months, his muscles were atrophied, from farm-work hardened musculature to the weak immobile limbs of paralysis. But it was also time to attempt gaining some amount of movement back. At first, Wendell could not even sit up without fainting, since he had been in a horizontal position for so long in the hospital. No one knew whether Wendell would be able to rehabilitate his paralyzed arms but rehabilitation was initiated regardless. He worked fruitlessly for several weeks despite the frustration and difficulty but finally, fifteen weeks after he began, a twitch developed in his left bicep. Wendell was elated. With this seemingly small progress, a much greater hope was born—a measure of independence. The twitch strengthened as time passed and he was moved to a better-equipped facility to continue the painstaking work of retraining and developing his muscles.
Through the courtesy of Hill Air Force Base, Wendell flew in a military cargo transport to Palo Alto, California where he went through the frustration of learning to feed himself again with the assistance of a brace. Countless times, as he raised the spoon to his mouth, his muscles failed and the food was spilled, but eventually he was able to control his biceps well enough to eat. However, he longed to be able to paint and draw. A metal brace with leather straps to wrap around his arm and hand was designed that included a hollow metal cylinder with a butterfly screw that tightened down, much like a miniature clamp or a vice, so that he could hold a pencil in a fairly natural position. At first, he could only scribble. He could not even form the basic letters of the alphabet, but after a lot of frustration and much practice, he left Palo Alto with a small recognizable sketch of a tree and the ability to write his name. It was during his stay in Palo Alto that Wendell made a crucial decision about his future. While living amongst his fellow rehab patients, Wendell noticed that there were really only two paths he could follow as a quadriplegic. He could either give up, becoming embittered and waste away, or he could find something meaningful to do with his time. His deep faith in God imbued him with remarkable strength of will, and he resolved to live up to his potential.
Wendell returned to Mapleton with stronger shoulders, but he still longed to improve his painting skills. He practiced his skills for several years in a special room that his father built onto the existing house. Everything in the new addition was designed specifically for his needs, from a cement ramp Frank made himself, to a wide room – perfect for the hospital bed that Wendell stayed in most of the time. A large window gave him a lot of light for painting and a beautiful view. During this time at home, he and his parents devised many gadgets to aid his independence. Now, thankfully, computers and technology allow many quadriplegics to reestablish some amount of independence, but in the 1970s, this technology was many years in the future. It was only through a unique and creative system of low-tech solutions that Wendell could do what most people take for granted. Through trial and error and creative spontaneity, he developed a whole multitude of specialized equipment to perform basic tasks (i.e. painting, typing, drinking, answering the phone, feeding himself, and brushing his teeth) Frank’s welding and building skills, combined with a lot of duct tape, were a cornerstone to helping Wendell do the otherwise impossible. For example, to answer the phone, he had a metal handle that could be duct taped to the phone. When the phone rang, he would carefully thread the handle into the metal cylinder of his arm brace, and pick up the receiver. For eating, he had spoons with handles that had been heated and bent to fit properly into this same brace. All of his daily activities were carefully adapted to his limited motion, a contraction of his bicep muscles.
His parents cared for him for several years, as his skill with the paintbrush was refined. It took about four years of rigorous practice, an art school correspondence course, and plenty of independent reading in books, until he finally developed the skill to create paintings that pleased him. Wendell enjoyed working on several paintings at a time, switching focus from one to the other depending on his mood. He would work for hours each day, only pausing for food or rest. To adjust for his limited range of motion, he always worked slowly and methodically, turning the painting upside-down, and sideways to reach into the far away areas of the painting. He worked so slowly, he needed to keep his oil paints in a sealed plastic container so that they would not dry out, and watercolors were nearly impossible to work with. To access various brushes, he would wear an apron that held the needed brushes such that he could maneuver his hand brace around to grab them. Additionally, he had a special desk, much like a large and sturdy tray table with a raised masonite platform as a hand rest. This left a slot between the raised platform and the table that was wide enough for a painting. This way, his arm was suspended directly above the painting he was working on. A drawing would take a few months to complete; a painting would often take him from several months to over a year.
As time passed, Wendell became very popular. Many people would come to visit with the intention to cheer him up, but would shortly find themselves confiding their current life crisis and asking for advice. Because of his adversity, Wendell had become very patient and wise. And as an excellent listener, he knew just the questions to ask to help people solve their problems. It became his life-long occupation – amateur therapist and best friend. He helped alter the course of many lives for the better.
In about 1972, a new friend, and later wife, started visiting. It all started with a slide show. Mary Ellen Edmunds (a close friend of Wendell’s) had just come back from a vacation, and wanted to show him some of her slides. She begged Susan, her sister, for the use of her slide projector. Susan had little else to do that evening and agreed as long as she could visit Wendell as well. The two sisters ended up seeing Wendell weekly for a couple of months but Mary Ellen eventually became too busy to stop by. Susan still wanted to see Wendell, but she worried that he did not truly enjoy her company.
The 24th of July is the anniversary of Utah’s statehood, and the biggest celebration in Mapleton. The city hosts a parade and a carnival that everyone in the town traditionally attends. Susan and Wendell had not seen each other for a few weeks, and when they coincidentally met at the festivities, Wendell asked her why she had not been to see him recently. Susan was glad that she was welcome to visit, and she did so often. Over time, the visits increased. Soon the neighbors were starting to wonder what was going on, and for good reason, because after four years of dating, Wendell and Susan got engaged and constructed a house next door to her parents, Paul and Ella Edmunds. Wendell fulfilled the role of architect by designing the house himself with all the facilities that he would need, including a nice open studio with lots of windows, a ramp, and extra wide doorways for his wheelchair.
Their marriage took place on August 8, 1975 at the LDS Provo Temple, and the reception that followed was held in Frank and Orpha Dee’s beautiful backyard. Virtually the whole town of Mapleton turned out for the occasion. Over one thousand friends and neighbors attended!
If the wedding was a surprise, imagine the shock when about a year later, Wendell and Susan announced they were expecting a child. There is less than a one percent chance of having a child under the circumstances of being quadriplegic with a C4 to C5 break, so it was truly against all odds. After nine months of an uncomfortable yet standard pregnancy, the time came to deliver the baby, or so they thought Wendell and Susan rushed to the hospital and waited. Unbelievably, Susan lifted Wendell into the hospital bed next to hers in between contractions because it was taking so long that he was getting tired in his wheelchair. She is undoubtedly one of the toughest women around. Unfortunately, it was a false alarm. They were sent home only to return the next day for the true event. Initially, when Susan and Wendell arrived in the Emergency Department, the E.R. staff rushed over to Wendell, asking what they could do for him. It wasn’t until he pointed out that his very pregnant wife was about to deliver that the medical staff correctly identified the true patient! After a long ordeal, a girl was born on January 1, 1977 and named Wendy Sue after both parents. She was immediately spoiled rotten by the whole extended family.
Wendell was an excellent father, with unusual patience. He assumed a responsibility usually held by the mother: that of the stay at home caretaker. Because Susan was the financial supporter of the family, working first in real estate, then settling into a school bus driving job, both sets of grandparents and Wendell took excellent care of Wendy. Once Wendy outgrew destructive toddler status, Wendell was able to independently parent her. He never raised his voice, and always weathered the frustrating parts of parenthood exceptionally well. Furthermore, he was an excellent teacher. It was his loving guidance that inspired Wendy to eventually pursue a career in art.
Susan and Wendell made a formidable team. She was strong enough to care for Wendell entirely on her own – no nurses or other medical hospice care was required. Her father, Paul, was a doctor, and her mother, Ella, had been a surgical nurse before marriage, so Susan was well prepared for the medical aspects of caring for Wendell. Furthermore, since her parents lived right next door, she could seek emergency help at any hour. Their expertise saved Wendell’s life on several occasions, and made it possible for him to significantly outlive his prognosis. She was able to support him in his many pursuits, and together they accomplished many extraordinary things. Wendell spent his newly married life in a busy blur of achievement. He won many awards in various painting competitions, he served in the political arena, and helped write two non-fiction books. The first book was a joint effort between Rell Francis and Wendell about the artist Cyrus Dallin. His later book, “History of Mapleton”, was a collaborative effort with Kay Harmer. They invested innumerable hours researching and compiling a history of the Mapleton area, chronicling the Native American tribes who roamed the land in the earliest times, to the religious settlement of the town in the 1850s, to the gradual growth and establishment of the town of Mapleton as it was in 1976 when they finished the book. They also wrote short biographical sketches of many of the founding families, making it an excellent source of genealogical information.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, Wendell became a part of the history of the rapidly growing town of Mapleton. He was Justice of the Peace (1974 – 1980), and Mayor (1982 – 1986). He proved to be a great mediator as Justice of the Peace, and a very hard working and insightful Mayor. During his term as Mayor, he managed to handle two floods, get Mapleton out of debt, and put a hold on building at the base of Maple Mountain in the hope that it could be preserved for future residents of Mapleton. The stress of his term as Mayor really began to show near the end of his service. His health started to decline, and painting became more difficult because of his other duties. He easily decided not to run for reelection.
After being Mayor, Wendell settled into painting. His arm was weaker than before due to his mayoral duties taking away time from painting, so he rebuilt his strength by drawing with ballpoint pens. During this time, some of his finest work was created. His drawings were populated by subjects rarely seen in his paintings such as mythological creatures, horses, and celebrity caricatures. He also drew portraits of family and friends. Because the investment of time was much less than it was for a painting, his subjects were often more fanciful and varied than in his oil paintings. Another exercise for his arm was his increasingly cryptic hand-written journal with free associations that even his immediate family, living in the same house, could not fully understand. His goal was to keep the entry short because it was hard for him to write so he used only a couple of words, or a song title, to describe an entire days worth of events. Each page of the journal was decorated, like an illuminated manuscript, with random drawings of flowers, patterns, and animals. He consistently inked in the name of his current project, recording each day’s work with precision.
In the early 1990s, Wendell’s health took yet another horrible turn for the worse. He spent a lot of time watching TV and trying to stave off the excruciating pain, unable to draw and paint as often as before. Everything he managed to paint during this period was exceptionally beautiful. He started painting his R series – a mark that he put in the corner aside his signature that meant it was a masterwork. Many of his best paintings never did see completion. Paintings and drawings slowed, and finally stopped as he went into the hospital for the month long stay in 1996. He passed away after contracting a terrible case of pneumonia in the hospital on March 24, 1996. His funeral was an unforgettably poignant celebration of the many things he had accomplished in his difficult life.
Wendell’s life was truly a series of miracles. His prognosis was realistically very grim when he was first admitted into the hospital; he would never walk, never gain much movement in his arms (if any at all), and under optimal circumstances might live ten years, dying at the youthful peak of 26. Certainly he had never expected to marry or have children of his own. His accident was before the days of the computer, thus, hope for any amount of independence was slim. Yet from the ashes of a ruined life, he rose like a phoenix defying the flames to live each day with courage and faith. The secret to his longevity and success was a combination of attitudes and qualities forged through discipline and perfected with patience. His positive attitude, sense of humor, and mental strength combined to form formidable determination. He knew it was crucial to keep busy and focus on the many friends and family members that he loved so well. After the initial shock of the accident, he did not stagnate in self-pity, or waste away in depression. Instead, he found solace in his faith, and focused on finding something meaningful to do with his life. His rare ability to conquer his limitations set him apart as a true hero and an inspiring example to many people.
This biography was written by Wendy Johnson Roberts, Wendell’s daughter in 2004. It was through Wendell’s expert guidance that Wendy took an interest in art and graduated from Brigham Young University in 1999 with a degree in Fine Arts. During her college training, she picked up a lot of computer nerd training as well. After working as a multimedia designer, and later as a freelance graphic artist, she has returned to her roots and is now, as of this update in 2017, an artist who works primarily in oil paint, living and often depicting her surroundings on the gorgeous island of Oahu. You can see her work at www.wendyrobertsfineart.com. She is the webmaster for this site, which has been in existence in various formats and designs since 2003.