I guess it was fitting that Johnny Starkey carved some of his last Santa Claus figures at Catawba Community Center on Saturday, during the Catawba Holiday Market. The community center was the former Catawba School where Johnny went to elementary school. He loved the Catawba community and never wanted to live anywhere else.
Johnny, who was 61, died the next day of an apparent heart attack while cutting brush on the farm in Catawba where he and his wife, Brenda, lived. It was part of his family land, and Johnny told me in an interview a year ago he never left. He’s going to be buried there Friday.
His family and those who knew him as a friend, community member, worked with him, saw him at craft shows or collected his carvings are still reeling.
Johnny was world famous, in a way, for carving wooding Santa Claus figures and ornaments at his home shop Brenda’s brothers built next to the house, The Woodshed Carving Shop. Just Saturday, a couple stopped by to purchase a Santa they were sending to Slovakia, a friend said. He sold on eBay, his website, at Joe’s Trees Christmas tree farm in Craig County near Newport, in Salem at Tinkerings and at the Catawba Valley Farmers’ Market on Thursday afternoons during the spring and summer. That’s where I got to know him better.
Earlier this year, one of Johnny’s carvings – a bird in a cage that he carved from a solid piece of wood – was featured in a Danish book, “Woodcarving Magic” by Bjarne Jespersen which the Salem Times-Register wrote about in September. He had the clipping of that article on his table Saturday, I noticed.
On the afternoon of the Salem Christmas Parade a year ago, I visited Johnny in his shop. It was like being in Santa Claus’ workshop. You can read all about it and him in this link to that article on the Salem Times-Register’s website: http://ourvalley.org/santas-all-through-the-house-all-year-long/
Lately he had added notecards with photos of his Santas, and some drawings and watercolors he did of wildlife he enjoyed photographing on the farm and nearby.
Carving was Johnny’s side job. He worked at Winn-Dixie for years – and was store manager of the Vinton-area store at Parkside until it closed. Currently, he worked with Oasis Management Systems that stocks canteens in area jails and prisons.
By last Christmas, Johnny had carved more than 2,216 Santas. I’m not sure how many he had done since then, but he had five he turned out Saturday that he planned to paint later. I particularly liked the Santa with twisted beard, and told him so.
Friend Ann Harrell, a country photographer whose work is Creekside Creations, recalled this in her note to crafters to announce the sad news; “Johnny and his wife, Brenda, were set up beside me yesterday at the Catawba Valley Holiday Market. We had a great time, as usual, kidding each other. Since he had recently started selling note cards, printed with his watercolors or pen and ink drawings, I had to ‘complain’ about the competition. Some of us also had to tease Johnny about the mess he always made as he carved more Santas during the craft show. Wonderful memories! If only we had known.”
I remember Johnny for his slow, easy grin; his carving talents, his love of Catawba, his family farm and his deep love for his wife, son Jonathan who is in the Air Force at Langley and had just been home over the weekend, and granddaughter, Kaity.
And he enjoyed oatmeal raisin cookies. Johnny bought two of them from me every Catawba Valley Farmers’ Market during the summer on Thursdays. He bought two more from on Saturday, too. I’m glad I had them for him.