AT AGE 52 and after 26 years of marriage, Irvin Johnson Jr. finally sent his wife a valentine.
The sonnet was not a frilly, poetic pledge of love, nor was it neatly written on a Cupid-laden card. It was a simple note that was scribbled in pencil within the boundaries of a mimeographed guide supplied by the Learning Bank, an adult literacy program in Southwest Baltimore.
"Just a few lines to lit you know how much I love you," said the first letter Johnson has ever written. "I want to thank you for 26 wonderful years and three wonderfull children."
Those words opened a new world for Johnson, once a quiet, reserved man because he never wanted to reveal the secret of his illiteracy.
He now is experiencing life like never before and marvels at his ability to read, write and even browse through the dictionary.
"I am now able to do some of the things I wanted to do but was never able to do," he said. "I never talked too much. I was quiet, too embarrassed of myself. Now I talk a lot."
"He STAYS on that phone," adds Sandra.
A student at the Learning Bank since September, Johnson has (( worked hard to increase his fifth-grade level of reading and writing and loves the program so much, he inspired his mother to join, too.
Twice a week, Johnson goes to the classroom located at 1223 W. Baltimore Street where he sharpens his communication skills and now is learning how to run a computer.
"I did it because a mind is a terrible thing to waste," he said. "I needed some more education. I'll go until I finish my GED and then on to something -- whatever I might be capable of doing."
Johnson worked for the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. before retiring with a disability in 1986. He suffered from sleep apnea, an upper respiratory disease that causes choking, shortness of breath and constant drowsiness because of a lack of oxygen to the brain.
The disease forced Johnson deeper into a shell that neither Sandra or the couple's three children could crack.
He refused to leave his bedroom for almost one year, he said, because he feared nodding off in public. That hibernation led to a weight gain that boosted his stocky frame to 750 pounds.
A neighbor gave the couple a set of intercoms so Sandra could monitor Irvin's health from downstairs. She got so frustrated with his depression that one day she turned the intercom off.
Then she took control of the situation.
"I was the one to wash and feed him. I brought him the bed pan and everything," she said. "I forced him to go to the hospital. When he finally got downstairs, we said, 'Thank you, Jesus' and everybody started crying. The doctors didn't think he was going to make it, but he pulled through. They called him the miracle man."
Johnson was given a tracheotomy, a pipe inserted in his throat to help him breathe. Shortly thereafter, he decided to change his life -- he lost 300 pounds and started to learn how to read and
A little over a year after the Johnsons renewed their wedding vows at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on their 25th anniversary during a formal ceremony, Johnson told one of the volunteers at the Learning Bank that he wanted to write his first letter and address it to his wife.
"I told them I wanted to tell her things that I had never told her," he said.
"I never told you how I appreciate you win I was sick," the letter said. "Im so thankfull to you."
The letter brought tears and kisses.
"Our love kept us together," Sandra said. "You see, we grew up together in the same neighborhood. I've been knowing Irv all my life."
"The way she fussed at me, you could tell that she loved me," Johnson added.
In sickness and in health, the Johnsons have made it.