Video from Lynn Johnson's Kickstarter
The story of how Lynn Johnson plans to change the world starts with him getting into a nasty ski accident in Purgatory, which is a town in Colorado. But his torn ACL doesn't matter—the important thing is that while he was injured, he bought a hat in the shape of a turtle, and this altered his life forever. Everyone gave him comments on the hat. Strangers would wave hello or laugh when they saw him. Johnson, now 63, is a former minister and used to be a principal at a Christian school; he's got the kind of corny, Midwestern charm that can crowbar a smile out of just about anyone. He'd make jokes about his hats and came up with little sayings like, "You cannot be rude when wearing a turtle, not only would it be impolite, you will also look stupid," and, "Come out of your shell, wear a turtle!"
The turtle hat became Johnson's signature look, a conversation starter. "I can't say I've made intimate friends because of the hat, but it makes cab drivers smile," Johnson, who lives in Indiana, told VICE. "Cab drivers can be so bored all day long and then they see the hat, and it brightens their day. It bridges that impersonal gap with everyone." He wore it to England, where people were so reserved they wouldn't say anything to him, but would start chuckling as soon as they passed. When he officiated one of his daughters' weddings, the turtle was perched on top of his head.
Years passed. The hat got stained and worn-out, but the tag had fallen off, so Johnson couldn't figure out how to get another one. He looked all over the internet and couldn't find it. It was like he had the only one in the world. He replaced the lining, but it was still in bad shape. Then, 16 years after he bought it, he found another one in a secondhand store. But soon that hat was salt-stained. Worse, the company that made the hats had gone out of business. How was he going to get another turtle hat?
He'd just have to pay to make a new generation of hats, that's how. And this is when Johnson's ambitions got bigger. He tore apart his hat so he could create a pattern for the manufacturer and launched a Kickstarter to raise the $5,000 he'd need to handle all the expenses. He has a website and is also selling T-shirts that say, "Prove you have a sense of Humor! Wear a Turtle on your head." (The period is on the T-shirt.)
But the turtle hats are about more than just hats, or turtles. Johnson believes that his hat makes him friendly and open. "It's my signature signal that I'm a friendly guy who you can ask to take a photo, and who won't get mad when flights are delayed, even if it's inconvenient," is how his website puts it. "It is my reminder to lighten up today."
"Some of us, growing up, our mothers taught us, 'When you go out the door, put on a smile,'" Johnson said. "It's very much like putting on a smile."
Maybe, if more people wear turtle hats, more people will feel the same thing that Johnson feels when he wears his. That's his idea anyway. Inside each hat he ships, he plans to put a card that tells the owners, "Lighten up. Slow down. Work the hat, not your phone. Try not to take yourself too seriously."
Johnson is thinking bigger than that, though. In an email, he outlined an idea for "Turtle Hat Societies," groups where men could get together to mentor young people, provide scholarships to the underprivileged, and do other good works.
"Men in America tend to be isolated and not have truly close friendly, non-competitive, honest relationships," Johnson wrote. "We need such relationships for our best wellbeing and human flourishing."
Johnson is a goofy, goofy man—when he answered the phone, he kicked off our conversation by saying, "This is Lynn Johnson, how may I button up your day?" His Kickstarter page is similarly goofy, and if you are bred on irony and the idea that the best jokes are somehow shocking or mean, you inevitably ask yourself, Is he kidding? But no, he is not kidding, and you can't deny his whole campaign has an undeniable power. Can you picture someone in a turtle hat starting a war? Or shooting an unarmed civilian? Or sending mean tweets? When Johnson says that he wants "to touch many thousands of lives, lightly and cheerfully, for the better," you believe him, and you want him to succeed.
He's raised more than $2,700 of his $5,000 goal with 24 days to go, and there's a good chance his campaign will go a bit viral—Johnson said that he's been contacted by BuzzFeed, the Washington Post, and even The Late Late Show with James Corden. But for now, he's just walking around with the hat he had made as a sample.
"Since the Kickstarter, I'm so shameless," he said. "I wear it everywhere, and if anyone even looks at me, I walk up to them and say, 'You like the hat? I know where you can get one just like it,' and then I hand them a card. It's wonderful."