COLUMBIA, S.C. — At age 96, Joe Johnson is still first in line when the bloodmobile arrives at his South Carolina retirement home. He's always eager to save lives and keep up the habit he started during his Army career.
"I'm sure I've given gallons," says the retired master sergeant. "I don't see any reason to stop."
Johnson, who has lived at the Morningside retirement center in Greenwood, S.C., for about 10 years, is a regular donor, said Katherine Amerson, executive director at the home.
"He's just great. He's always out there, trying to get everyone to donate. 'It's your duty,' he tells everybody," Amerson said in a telephone interview.
Johnson said in the same phone call that he began donating after he joined the Army in Tennessee at age 21 and kept it up after moving to Florida, and then later South Carolina. The former infantry soldier said he served in Europe — though not in combat — and back in the United States, training National Guard forces.
"They'd say to us, 'Line up and give blood' and maybe out of 200 or so in the company, maybe 40 or 50 guys would do it. Some people would just walk away, but I never did," Johnson said. "I constantly gave blood. I had a routine going."
Johnson celebrated his 96th birthday on Tuesday with a cake, which Amerson said he insisted on sharing with some of the other 43 residents at the assisted living home. His most recent blood donation was a week earlier when a mobile unit made one of its periodic visits to the retirement home.
Jason Agee, who works for the not-for-profit The Blood Connection, said he was wondering what Johnson wanted when he first came out to his mobile unit parked outside the retirement home.
"He came straight out to the bus and said, 'I'm here to donate, young man!" Agee said.
"He's always telling stories. He's awesome," Agee said. "For him, it's all about giving to help other people. Every pint of blood can save up to three lives, you know."
Agee said his organization collects about 2,000 units, or pints, of blood every week in South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina.
Jan Kissimon, the organization's chief marketing officer based in Greenville, said Johnson is one of several older donors in the area and that the organization has taken blood in the past year or so from several people "who've been in the 100-year range."
"We have a small pool of people in that category," said Kissimon. "They are a generation who are used to giving. It's a whole different mentality."
Although one typically must be at least 16 years old to donate blood, there is no upper age limit, said Stephanie Millian, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in the Washington, D.C., area.
"It seems to be true for those who grew up, or experienced World War II. They become life-long blood donors," Millian said.
The Red Cross is the nation's largest single blood collection agency, and gathers about 6 million units of blood from about 4 million volunteers annually, Millian said.
The average age for donors with the Red Cross is 40, and the organization has taken blood from donors ranging in age from 16 to 102, Millian said.
There are restrictions depending upon medications, travel or residence in certain regions of the world in order to avoid the chance for infectious diseases. Information about donating can be accessed on the Red Cross web site, she said.
The American Association of Blood Banks estimates there are about 10.8 million volunteers who donate blood every year.
The association's website says an estimated 38 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood at any given time, but less than 10 percent do so annually. About 44,000 blood units are used in hospitals or emergency rooms every day, the website says.
So far, Johnson said he intends to keep on giving for as many years as he can.
"I think I'm good for a few years more," he said with a chuckle.