Jim Johnson '62


Peak Performance

%886%right%It's difficult to imagine Jim Johnson '62 incapacitated.

At home in suburban Litchfield, New Hampshire, while his interviewer sat in a white-carpeted dining room contemplating the large and immaculate lawn outside, Johnson moved from room to room, carrying on a conversation about his recent hiking expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro. First he yelled over sound of ice grinding as he made juice. Then he called from an upstairs room where he was searching for a list of professional accomplishments.

Finally he sat at the big dining-room table describing the moment his life came to a halt,with an attack of sciatica in August 2001. "I couldn't stand, I couldn't walk," said Johnson, a trim man who exudes energy and enthusiasm.

Until then, Johnson's life as a career-minded achiever seemed limitless. Launched from the projects of West Roxbury, Mass., on an academic scholarship, he found himself one of the few African-American students at Colby in the late 1950s. After receiving a bachelor's degree in philosophy, he went on to earn a law degree from New England Law School. Johnson then settled into a 21-year career in the Air Force as a special agent with the Office of Special Investigations. Leaving the Air Force, he went on to a private law practice where he built a national reputation as a polygraph examiner.

Then came the sciatica, and suddenly Johnson's life was constricted by pain, immobility, and Oxycontin, a powerful painkiller that becomes addictive if misused. "I had a fear I would become a drug addict and would never walk again," said Johnson. In the soul-searching weeks of recovery, Johnson vowed to make himself a better person, beginning with his health.

"I had realized , that I was a workaholic. I had no balance in my life, no hobbies." Interviewing pedophiles and young offenders facing serious jail time was taking an emotional toll. "I have a very stressful job, nothing to counterbalance it," he said.

So Johnson counterbalanced his life with gusto. He discovered a love of hiking and, in about a year, he hiked all 48 peaks in New Hampshire that are taller than 4,000 feet. "I saw my first vista and I was off and running," he said.

%887%left%Soon he set his sights on Kilimanjaro, at 19,300 feet Africa's tallest peak. Hiking Kilimanjaro is expensive (about $9,000, including airfare, through a tourist guide service), but almost anyone in reasonable fitness can ascend it once acclimated to altitude, he claims.

But Johnson has more infirmities than meet the eye. He has lived with a pacemaker for eight years. His eyes are clouded by glaucoma and he suffers from bone marrow failure syndrome.

On his first Kilimanjaro bid last year, after getting to within two football fields of the summit, Johnson began hallucinating. He turned back. Then in March of this year, he tried again,taking nine days instead of six,and reached the summit.

He left Tanzania with more than just pride in achieving a personal goal. During some soul searching in Africa, Johnson, who is divorced with no children, committed himself to helping children of single women in inner cities through an outreach hiking program. His goal is to help kids like himself,a self-described "late bloomer" from the Lenox Street Housing Project.

"It's my little contribution to children of single parents," Johnson said. "I'll be their buddies once a month,nothing big. The idea is in its infancy... but I know I'm going to do it."

Nothing big? Don't count on it.

,Lee Burnett