When Mike Johnson, 51, leaves his house each day in Canon City, Colo. (pop. 15,431), he looks like he’s going on vacation. It doesn’t matter if the weather is sunny or snowy, Johnson wears a splashy Hawaiian shirt.
But he’s actually going to work—in prison.
“It’s a harsh environment. When I walk in there, I try to make people feel a little better about their day,” says Johnson, who works for the Colorado Department of Corrections delivering prescriptions to 11 state prisons. “The shirts are a fun thing. If someone smiles, that’s great.”
Johnson’s collection of about 300 Hawaiian or aloha shirts, as they’re called in Hawaii, fills a 20-foot-long metal rod in his basement. As colorful as peacock plumage, the short-sleeved and straight-tailed shirts are decorated with traditional designs featuring beach scenes, tropical flowers, flying fish and hula dancers, as well as more contemporary images of astronauts, cigars, turkeys and company logos.
“I start at the left end of the pole and find a shirt that goes with my pants and feels like my mood for the day,” Johnson says. “After I wear a shirt and wash it, I hang it on the right end. I wear every shirt so it takes about a year to go through the whole collection.”
Johnson’s practical collection began in 1993 when his wife, Paula, bought him a zany shirt emblazoned with planets, rockets and palm trees for $3.99 at a Goodwill store in Canon City.
“I thought the shirt was hilarious, and I meant it as a joke,” says Paula, 58.
But Mike couldn’t wait to wear it. “As a kid I wanted to be an art teacher,” he says. “I’ve always liked bright colors.”
Co-workers welcomed his colorful attire so Mike began scouting thrift stores for bright, breezy and bargain Hawaiian shirts or Hawaiian-style shirts, as purist collectors call modern designs. He reserves a somewhat subdued red and black Hawaiian shirt for wearing to funerals and other solemn occasions. He also altered one of his shirts to fit his Irish Setter, Kooey.
Mike has worn a Hawaiian shirt to work every day for 17 years, with the exception of one when he and his prison co-workers wore matching polo shirts for an employee-training event.
“Someone sewed beach umbrellas and palm trees on my polo,” he says. “It’s not me if I’m not wearing bright colors.”
Co-worker Becky Fazzino, 48, gets a kick out of Mike’s shirt-of-the-day. “I’ve seen every design from the bottom of the ocean floor to the moon surface,” she says. “The shirts brighten up the whole pharmacy.”
Though Mike owns a few rare 1960s rayon Hawaiian shirts and high-end Pierre Cardin designs, he simply likes the shirts because they’re comfortable and colorful. “I’m not a plain shirt guy, and I’d rather die than wear a plaid shirt,” he says.