One week ago the Up North Surf Club, a combination surf shop and pub on North Killingsworth Street in the Arbor Lodge neighborhood, was relatively quiet. It was their weekly movie night and a few regulars showed up to watch The Yin and Yang of Gerry Lopez, a film that chronicles the life of the surf legend. Among them were Mick Tarsel, Dwayne Sackey, and John Baker — three friends whose close relationship revolves around riding waves.
Earlier that night Mick half-jokingly told John he’d be happy to drive him home. “I said, ‘just put in my truck, it’s dark’,” Mick shared. John declined Mick’s offer not only because he loved riding his bike, but also because had just built up a brand new one. That night was the first time he’d ridden his new bike. And sadly, it might have been his last.
Minutes after the friends said goodbye, John walked over to his bike parked at a rack on North Montana just outside the pub. As he rolled south across the street to the bike lane on Killingsworth to head toward his house near Northeast Alberta and 24th, someone driving a car very fast was headed eastbound. The driver slammed into John with so much force his body and parts of his bike flew high into the air. According to a witness, the driver pumped their brakes a block away and then sped off. The car has since been found abandoned in a nearby neighborhood and police are still looking for the driver.
John is still in the ICU. But his friends and family have swung into action. Nearly $24,000 has already been raised online and well over 100 people packed into Up North Surf Club last night to show their support.
The mood at the event was deceptively jovial — a layer of grief rested just under a blanket of cheerful optimism many hope will be enough to pull John through the hardest paddle of his life. When his close friend Kari Lyons thanked the crowd and reminded them it would require a “marathon” effort to support him and someday raise money for a wheelchair, one man in the crowd yelled, “A new wheelchair? You mean a new surfboard?!”
John’s adult daughter was there. So was his mom Jo Johnson who flew in from Nevada to be by his side at Legacy Emanuel Hospital. “Every day he makes little improvements,” she said during remarks in front of the large crowd following a moment of silence. “Thank you all so much for doing this. I had no idea what kind of family he had. He’d be so happy to see you all out here.”
Jo told me she was “devastated” after she was notified about what happened to her son. “I always thought if I got a call like that it would be about surfing,” she said, fighting back tears. But the event, she said, lifted her spirits. “I’ve never experienced anything like the love that came out of that benefit in my entire life. There was so much love, it buoyed us all up.”
Everyone I spoke to last night said John lived for surfing.
“He is one of the best surfers in Oregon. He can read the waves better than anyone,” Mick said. “Surfing is his life. The ocean, the connection to nature, the people. It wasn’t just a sport to him. And he’s known not just for his surfing, but for the type of person he is.”
Mick shared that John has just settled back into Portland this week, after moving from a home in the coastal town of Manzanita just a few miles south of his favorite surf break at Short Sands. “Being able to ride his bike was big reason he gave for wanting to move back to Portland,” he recalled.
Up North Surf Club owner Martin Schoeneborn described John as a passionate cyclist who rode his bike from Portland to Pacific City on the Oregon Coast many times. I spoke to Martin on the corner where John was hit. “So many drivers don’t stop for that crosswalk,” he said, pointing to the painted crosswalk on Montana. “After this, my wife won’t let me ride at night anymore.”
The driver who failed to stop for John at that crosswalk has taken something profound away from our community. As his family struggles to adjust to a new reality, one of the pieces still missing is the person responsible for it.
John’s mom asked me to share a statement to them:
“To the driver of the car that hit my son, this is a personal note to you from his mom. You must be feeling just terrible now. This must be eating you up. Please do the right thing and go in to the Portland Police Bureau, or call them at 503-823-3333. Thank you.”