Ferne Johnson, was AIDS counselor

September 04, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Ferne E. Johnson, an AIDS activist and counselor, died Thursday of complications from acquired immune deficiency syndrome at Stella Maris Hospice in Towson. The Hamilton resident was 44.

Ms. Johnson, a recovering drug addict, turned her personal struggle with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS into a mission of mercy and understanding for those similarly afflicted.

"She had been clean for the last nine years," said a son, Darrell T. Belton of Baltimore. "She made a great recovery from her drug addiction and was determined to help others."

She was diagnosed in 1987 as being HIV-positive and began counseling.

"I could see after Ferne attended one of my counseling sessions that she had leadership qualities," said Joe Jacques, an AIDS activist, retired psychologist and educator.

"I only trained facilitators who were HIV-positive -- I wanted BTC people who had their feet in the same shoes. She was a marvelous lady who was sensitive, very sincere and who worked very hard. She was a real gem and her great secret was her compassion."

Anna Mullen, a registered nurse who is engaged in AIDS research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, said: "I think she ran deep. She was quiet. Strong. Capable. Very focused. Her loss is hurting a lot of people out there."

"She was a deeply spiritual person who had a great sense of God and Jesus," said her daughter, Kristina E. Logan of Baltimore.

"She wasn't ashamed of her illness and she wondered why anybody else should be. She had on the bumper of her car a sticker that read, 'One Day at a Time,' and it was something that she said every day."

Known as Penny, Ms. Johnson was born and reared in Cherry Hill and Westport, and was a 1968 graduate of Carver Vocational High School. She continued her education at the Community College of Baltimore, where she studied business administration, and at the Soujourner Douglas College, where she studied social studies.

After working as a postal worker in Washington, D.C., for several years, she returned to Baltimore in 1975 and worked for the post office until leaving in 1989.

She began working with HERO as a case worker in 1987 and in that position referred those with HIV/AIDS to various medical institutions and support groups. She was still employed with the organization at the time of her death.

She was a board member of numerous organizations, which included Quality of Life, People With AIDS Coalition, the community advisory board of the Johns Hopkins Hospital's Moore Clinic, the Alive Clinic Advisory Board Study at the Johns Hopkins University, the Governor's AIDS Advisory Board and HUG, which locates housing for HIV patients.

Joyce Krammer, who is director of development for HERO and was director of volunteer services when she first met Ms. Johnson in 1987, said, "She was an extraordinary role model for addicts in recovery. She was a living symbol of how people can turn their lives around.

"It's a great loss. I don't know how we'll replace her. She was one of a kind, and her loss on the heels of AIDS activist John Stuban's death last month is just too much for folks to bear. She meant so much to all of us and was known far and wide," she said.

Despite her illness, Ms. Johnson continued visiting patients in their homes or in hospitals, conducting meetings and attending to what had become her AIDS network.

"It seemed like she gave her telephone number to the whole world," said her son. "She was running her own AIDS hot line from her phone," he said.

"She touched so many lives that it's got to be in the thousands," said Ms. Mullen.

In her leisure time, she loved rummaging through thrift stores with Ms. Mullen.

"She had an eclectic sense of dress and came to my graduation from Western Maryland College several years ago dressed in an African-style dress. I mean, when she walked into the graduation everyone turned their heads to take a look. She was just different -- she was out there," her daughter said with a chuckle.

She also enjoyed photography and had a dark room, and she gave elaborate cookouts in the back yard of her Hamilton home.

A Memorial Mass will be offered at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at St. Bernardine Roman Catholic Church, Edmondson Avenue and Mount Holly Street, Baltimore.

Besides her son and daughter, other survivors include another son, Brian D. Johnson of Baltimore; three brothers, Joseph E. Johnson of Catonsville, Thurron A. Johnson of Baltimore, and Technical Sgt. Terry A. Johnson of Sunnyvale, Calif.; five sisters, Margie Y. Johnson of Los Angeles, Barbara A. Brooks, Elsie M. Johnson, Donna M. Walker, and Emily A. Johnson; her mother, Ferne E. Johnson; her grandmother, Bertha T. Gwynn, all of Baltimore.

Memorial donations may be made to HERO, c/o Ferne E. Johnson Fund, 101 West Read Street, Baltimore 21201.

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