A musical talent, mystery of God revealed on the street

City Diary

February 23, 2000|By Debbie M. Price

SOME PEOPLE knew him as Jerry, some as Kenneth. He didn't like to be called Jerry; people had a way of saying the name in a rude, demeaning way. Jerreee. He preferred Kenneth, his middle name. Kenneth sounded more dignified.

Not that most people would think such things mattered to a street person, a dirty, oftentimes very drunk street person with a hermit's wild beard. On his bad days, Jerry Kenneth Johnson could provoke even his friends to threaten to call police. His body odor was so ripe he once cleared all the pews on his side of the sanctuary. He set his hair on fire, sneaking a cigarette in the church restroom; he occasionally relieved himself in the hallowed halls.

The Rev. Lowell Thompson, pastor at Saints Stephen and James Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Baltimore was quick to warn, "Don't romanticize Ken. Man, he could drive you nuts."

In Baltimore, as in most large U.S. cities, we pass anonymous homeless men and women on the street every day, scarcely giving them a second thought beyond, perhaps, repulsion. Who they are, were, might have been is lost.

On the surface, Kenneth was no different. And yet, there was a fineness to him, an intellect, a musical talent and a sensitivity that drew people, Mr. Thompson included, into his helter-skelter orbit.

Kenneth lived on the streets of South Baltimore for 15 or 20 years, in and out of shelters, in and out of dry-out centers, in and out of hospitals, even in and out of a coma. He died Feb. 6 at age 53 in a way that was so spectacularly Kenneth: outrageous, embarrassing, unexpected and, yet, uplifting.

Carol Davis, an intern pastor at the Light Street and Lochearn Presbyterian churches, was with Kenneth when he died, just as she had been with him so many times over the last years.

In the story of his life, as told by Ms. Davis, Mr. Thompson and others who tried in vain to help him, is a lesson and a reminder that humanity perseveres. "Everything Kenneth told me," Ms. Davis said, "I later found out to be true."

Kenneth was from Minnesota. He never knew his father. His mother, a caretaker for an elderly farmer and his wife, died of cancer when he was 12. He lived with a foster family who had a piano, which he played. His foster father, whom he loved, was killed in a car crash. He parted badly from his foster mother.

Kenneth graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in organ performance. He directed a choir; he played the organ at a Lutheran church. He was drafted and served two years in the military.

He went to New York to study music.

Years later, Ms. Davis noticed Kenneth, by then a disheveled street person, playing the piano at a church. "You can tell the hands of a musician on a piano," she said. "He was gifted."

Maybe Kenneth attended the Juilliard School or maybe he just studied with a teacher there. Maybe he began to drink with a mentor who offered him Scotch; maybe the fondness for alcohol came later. The details begin to blur -- a job at the telephone company, gigs playing the organ. Weeks, then years, lost to booze.

The Reverend Thompson remembers the day 15 or 20 years ago when a homeless man shambled over to the baby grand piano in the church's soup kitchen and began to play beautiful Lutheran hymns.

"The people in the kitchen stopped what they were doing," he said. Before long, Kenneth was playing for the church's Thursday noon service -- three hymns for $5 so long as he was on time and sober.

He played the piano at First and Franklin Presbyterian Church on Madison Street, where he came before the session and, giving what former Pastor Harry Holfelder recalls as a powerful testimonial, asked to join the church. First and Franklin became his mail drop. He brought little presents for the church secretary, a flower, a candy bar. For others, pages torn from books -- not just any pages, as Pastor Holfelder recalled, but pages that spoke especially to you.

He bummed paper, pens and stamps to write letters and thank-you notes. And for Carol Davis, his most enduring friend, there was a book of Rudyard Kipling poems.

Ms. Davis credited Kenneth with helping her make an unlikely mid-life career switch to the ministry. So borrow the money, Kenneth told her, as she fretted over the cost of seminary.

"He was," she said simply, "my friend."

On Feb. 6, Ms. Davis took Kenneth to a Wendy's restaurant. Kenneth had attended worship led that morning by an African-American woman whom he found hilarious and inspiring. People, the preacher said, spent too much time complaining to God. He could relate.

Kenneth jumped from his booth at the restaurant to imitate the preacher.

"Woe is me, woe is me," he shouted, flailing his arms.

The flailing became shaking, then a spasm. He fell forward. Ms. Davis shouted for someone to dial 911.

The paramedics told her his heart had stopped.

"I said, `Oh, he'll be all right,' " Ms. Davis said. "It didn't quite register that Kenneth [was] dead."

The members of First and Franklin Presbyterian Church guaranteed the cost of his burial.

In the days after his death, his friends talked about a life and a talent that on the surface would appear to have been wasted, but were not.

"If you were pushed enough to look beyond the physical, then you might be fortunate enough to see some of the mystery of God in the world," said Ms. Davis. "That's what Kenneth did for me. He opened my eyes."

Today's writer

Debbie M. Price is a former Sun reporter who lives in Federal Hill.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods. Do you have a story to share? E-mail us at oped@baltsun.com or write us at City Diary, The Sun Op-Ed Page, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, MD 21278.

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