He’s 50 feet high when I find him. Johnny Pro is in the treetops, jumping limb to limb, a helmet and Oakley sunglasses obscuring his face. He rises upward through a tree facing the skyline at the southeast corner of Goodale Park. He notices me and descends, gliding downward on a rope to land at the base. He’s shirtless and built like a climber, small but spry, lean and muscular. His dark hair is matted with sweat and curling out from under his green helmet, with the word “PRO” visible in red lettering just above the edge of the visor. A carabineer dangles from his neck.
It’s not much as far as costumes go, but it’s practical, especially as he’s diving and spinning and twisting from branches. Plus, he’s initially caught off guard by the idea of a story on everyday superheroes. He’s an arborist and a recreational climber; his outfit isn’t for my benefit or anyone else’s. This is just what Johnny Pro wears when he wants to enjoy his lifelong passion.
A few minutes into our conversation I ask him about the stunt he pulled downtown two months ago. He flashes a million-watt smile and chuckles. “You’re actually the first person that has gotten hold of me about that.”
His buddies knew he was really going to do it once he scaled the chain link fence. They filmed Johnny Pro (aka Johnny Provenzale) as he walked through the construction site like he belonged there. He ascended up the alternating ladder system of an immense tower crane, some 180 feet in the air, on a bright blue spring day. He climbed out from the control station at the top and eased along the outstretched arm of the crane, stopping briefly to raise his arms in triumph. He took a panoramic shot with his phone while the GoPro video camera on his head recorded the scene. He looped his rope around the frame at the end of the crane’s arm, and then he shimmied back about 50 feet. At some point, he did a little dance.
And then he stepped off the beam and into thin air.
He swooped down and then out, drawing even with the end of the crane, his head pointed toward the concrete below and his body carving a path like a pendulum in the sky. He swung over to the roof of the six-story building across the street, gathered his ropes, dropped his backpack over the ledge, and then repelled down the face of the building to the sidewalk. He pulled the ropes from the crane and disappeared unscathed.
“I believed in this,” Johnny says. “For some reason doing this crane swing, I’m like, ‘I’m not damaging anything. I’m gonna be in, out, and Columbus will find it entertaining.’”
But it wasn’t purely entertainment or thrill-seeking sport. It was an expression of himself. It was an act of love. To understand that, you have to understand why he climbs.
He has an image stained into his mind. The memory is of the outdoors, seen through a window from inside. He’s a kid, sitting in front of a book or a computer at his house. He was homeschooled after he begged his mom to remove him from public school because he couldn’t function in the classroom—he was too energetic. In second grade he couldn’t read or write, and so his mom quit her job and tried to teach him herself (“She’s a superhero,” he says). She brought him on field trips whenever she could and gave it her all, but he wasn’t interested. He just wanted to be outside.
So he cheated. Throughout homeschooling and into his time in a charter high school, he gamed the system and cut corners, aching to escape. Then one of his older brothers began picking up side gigs cultivating trees as an arborist, and Johnny worked with him on the weekends as much as he could. He fell for the job, and when Johnny falls, he falls deep.
“I’m in love with climbing. I mean, everything I do is about climbing. I beg to climb at work, and I climb in my off time, as you can see.” He’s standing underneath the giant tree in Goodale, teaching his nephew Jack, who’s still up amongst the branches. “This is my day off.”
He worked for a public utility and then his brother’s company, Trees Are My Business. He participated in tree climbing and skills competitions, and an equipment company sponsors him to use its device and make up new climbing techniques, like the quick rope-retrieval method he used on the crane swing.
He finds freedom in big swings. He sets lines in towering trees and then he jumps, descending like a hawk. His abilities aren’t superhuman: he can’t fly or defy gravity, but in those zooming arcs he seems to suspend it. That’s where he feels liberated, in the air, expressing himself how he always wanted. The expectations of others and the everyday problems dissipate when he’s swinging. His joy and excitement and love are articulated in those moments.
That’s why he jumped off a crane in the middle of downtown for everyone in Columbus to see (“Crane Swing” on YouTube has 17,843 views and counting). He wanted to express himself in the only way he truly knows how. He says he has a fire for showing people what climbing has done for him and what it can do for them. “It’s almost like a meditation,” he says. “You go up in the tree and you forget about the world beneath you.”
He attempts to inspire others via the Internet and reveals his climbing secrets to anyone who’s interested. In addition to Jack, he also mentors his nieces, and he sometimes visits a local school to show his skills and his love for his job to young students, some of whom may spend their days staring out the window, dreaming of the treetops.
So when he saw the crane downtown, he knew he had to seize the opportunity to set an example and show others that there are no limits to love and where you can go if you follow your passion. He wanted to represent a bigger picture. He wanted to display his own extraordinary skills to show that everyone has unimagined capabilities.
“Everyone’s a superhero. Everyone has a superpower,” Johnny Pro says. “It’s just all about how you express it and you pay it forward, right?”