Salute for a general Dinner honors founder of program that helps dropouts earn diplomas

September 22, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Brigadier Gen. Thomas C. Johnson was born and raised in an area of East Baltimore where the streets were tough and the potential for trouble always ran high. But there was always someone there to keep him on the straight and narrow.

"My grandmother, she would always emphasize that you needed to be honest, and you needed to treat people the way you would want people to treat you," Johnson said. "I think it's a very basic message, but it has a big impact."

He used his grandmother's lessons to spur him through school and the military. And to help guide teen-agers to a path like the one he took.

Johnson, 51, who became the first African-American general in the Maryland National Guard and founding director of a Guard-sponsored program that has helped 367 high school dropouts earn their General Educational Development diplomas. He recently retired from the military and was honored at a dinner at the Hunt Valley Marriott last night.

"He's a real people person," said Brig. Gen. H. Steven Blum, assistant adjutant general for Army, Maryland Army National Guard. "He's a charismatic leader who always puts his people first."

Johnson now will become the Junior Reserve Officers Training Camp facilitator for Baltimore County Public Schools. A 1963 graduate of Baltimore's Carver Vocational-Technical High School, Johnson attended what was then Maryland State College and later the State University of New York at Albany, where he earned a degree in political science. In 1966, he enlisted in the Army as a private when the Vietnam War was escalating.

He built a career that included service as a Special Forces company executive officer; a commander of the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry and of the 29th (Light) Infantry Division. Johnson lives in Baltimore with his wife, Cathleen, whom he married in November. He has a daughter, Angela, and a son, Tyrone, both from a previous marriage. His awards include the coveted expert infantry badge and has been classified as a military ranger, an elite designation.

"He's really an extraordinary human being," Blum said. In 1973, Johnson left active duty and joined the Maryland National Guard as a full-time guardsman.

In 1993, he resigned to become a traditional guardsman, also known as a "weekend warrior." He became the director of the NTC new Operation Challenge -- a program that helps youth in the Baltimore-Washington area earn high school diplomas. The rigid, five-month military-style residential program now is called the Freestate Challenge.

"We really don't pay enough attention to young people who are asking for help until it's too late," Johnson said. "We, as responsible citizens, need to get involved. We need to become mentors."

Baltimore resident James Amos, 17, graduated from the program in July. He joined after troubles at home made it difficult for him to focus on school work.

"It definitely changes a person," Amos said. "It was a hard thing to do -- 5 1/2 months getting yelled at and screamed at -- but it was worth it . Gen. Johnson can probably change anybody from being a bum into anything."

Not everyone finished the program, but Johnson always seemed to remain driven, coupling military discipline with a sense of humor, said Col. Vernon Sevier, the new director of the program.

"You're working with young people who have been considered losers," said Sevier, who had been Johnson's assistant since the program began. "Our job is to turn them around and help make them winners.

"That's what I believe has driven [Johnson], the fact that he's making a positive contribution with a certain group of our young people, a group of at risk young people," Sevier said.

"He will be missed," Blum said. "Some people leave, and you're almost glad. In this case, we're not, we really would like to hang onto him."

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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