All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for October 2003

Woman thankful to answer her calling

October 19, 2003
Miami Herald
Desma Corhn

Alice and John Johnson were watching the Oprah Winfrey Show about 10 years ago when Winfrey suggested her audience start writing gratitude journals.

Putting your thoughts of gratitude on paper, she said, can be a powerful and spiritual revelation that life is a journey to be treasured.

John Johnson, who died last year, had multiple sclerosis and his wife was caregiver. She did not feel particularly grateful at the moment.

'I pointed my finger at the television and said, `Girlfriend, what in the world do I have to be grateful for?' " Alice Johnson recalled a few days ago. But her husband, she said, thought that they should give it a try.

"Once we started, we couldn't stop," she said.

From that reluctant beginning, the Johnsons self-published eight books on gratitude, with titles such as Love Paints Beauty in the Soul and Let Your Attitude be Gratitude. Following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the couple took the approach a step further, enlisting young people to share their thoughts on kindness and gratitude. The result is the Candlelights series of 24 books. The latest, Candlelights for the Elementary School Student's World: 99 Stories of Gratitude and Kindness that Touch Lives and Lift Spirits, was written by the students of Gilbert C. Porter Elementary School, 15851 SW 112th St. in South Miami-Dade.

Some of the books are carried by Barnes and Noble and all are available on-line from Johnson's website, www.mal, for $10 each.

The idea is catching on so much that Johnson has been asked to edit several new Candlelights books, including one by students in first through third grades at Hibiscus Elementary School, 18701 NW First Ave., North Miami Beach, and another by students of Florida Memorial College, 15800 NW 42nd Ave., Miami Gardens.

Annie Ruth Brown, director of internships in the Division of Education at Florida Memorial, said young people want to write about kindness, and the Candlelights books allow them to do so.

"The youth are out there, ready to share their inner self with the world, and that's what Alice has done. She has given a wake-up call to the inner beauty of children and, inadvertently, a wake-up call to all of us."

Johnson hopes to expand even more. She has just received a $7,000 Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs grant to produce a series of Candlelights plays highlighting positive roles for children. Students of Coral Reef High School in South Miami Dade will perform Candlelights for the High School Student's World and students of Richmond Heights Middle School, also in South Miami-Dade, will perform Candlelights for the Middle School Student's World. The two plays will be performed later this school year at the Joseph E. Caleb Auditorium, 5400 NW 22nd Ave. in Liberty City.

"Alice is on a mission to spread the message that kindness is love and action," said Johnson's literary agent Janelle Walden Agyeman. "And the world is crying out for it. There is a need for healing."

Johnson, 76, understands the need for healing. In 1995, she and her husband published The Mysterious Stranger Aboard, an autobiography that details the impact that multiple sclerosis had on the couple. The "Mysterious Stranger" in the title is a play on multiple sclerosis, Johnson said. She credited Winfrey also for inspiring the couple to complete the book they had been piecing together since John first was diagnosed with MS in 1973.

While the inspiration may have come from Winfrey and others who encouraged Johnson to write, she knew she had talent. The eighth of nine children, she was the first in the family to receive a college degree. She enrolled at Savannah State College, where she earned a bachelor's in business administration in 1948. She then took a teaching job at a primary school in Dallas, Ga., about 25 miles south of Atlanta.

In 1956, she went to Atlanta, where she got a job as an administrative secretary at Atlanta University -- now Clark Atlanta University. She received a master's degree in elementary education in 1962 and a marriage proposal from John Johnson, a Morehouse College graduate. "We were very much in love," she said.

The couple moved to Cincinnati, John's hometown, where she taught elementary school and he became a sales representative for the American Tobacco Co. The two didn't know it but John already was exhibiting signs of multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the central nervous system that predominantly affects young adults. Doctors misdiagnosed it, Johnson said.

Doctors eventually made the right diagnosis and John was forced to quit his studies and his teaching job. Friends advised the couple to move to a warmer climate. John's mother's first cousin lived in Miami, so they moved south.

They settled in Perrine, where the disease continued to take a toll on his health and Alice's emotions. Alice consulted an analyst, whom, she said, advised her to take a break from the strain.

"I just couldn't take it," she said. "MS was destroying my marriage. I felt pained that I had to do this but I needed some space. A friend told me about a doctoral program at the University of Sarasota [now Argosy University/Sarasota] and I enrolled."

The Johnsons continued their marriage long distance. He would visit her in Sarasota; she would come to Miami.

Combining their love for education and writing, the Johnsons began creating educational musicals, focusing on multicultural education and literacy. The couple also founded a production company in 1985, Mal-Jonal Productions Inc. -- Mal-Jonal being short for "Music and Literature by John and Alice" -- and wrote plays for children.

Hurricane Andrew destroyed their home and her husband was moved to the Veterans Administration nursing home in Miami, where he remained until his death in July 2002. Their home was rebuilt but doctors said his health was too fragile for him to return. The couple had no children.

Johnson not only has the memory of their writing collaboration, she also has her husband's poetry.

"He had a suitcase full of poetry," she reminisced, in tears. "I read some of his poetry. It was about his loneliness and his love for me, how much he missed me. I had no idea that he loved me like that."

Copyright © 2003, Miami Herald