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Remembering her husband’s smile

Posted by on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 in Editor's Column, September 2011.

Eileen Johnson is a soft-spoken fourth-grade teacher who just lost the love of her life, and she wanted to talk about him.

She knocked at my door one recent afternoon, introduced herself, and said that she had come by the Office of News and Communications and asked to speak with an editor, and somebody directed her to me.

She told me that her husband of 30 years, Kenneth Johnson, (“Kenny” in her words, and memory) died in June, a few weeks after a car wreck in which both he and Mrs. Johnson were injured.

He had severe injuries, she said, but seemed to be recovering at first. He was treated at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, always with Mrs. Johnson by his side, sometimes in a wheelchair herself as she recovered from serious injuries she suffered in the accident. She had hoped for his recovery, but despite the best efforts of his doctors and nurses, Kenny died.

“It was the other driver’s fault,” Mrs. Johnson said quietly. Not with evident anger, but with no effort to gloss over the fact that the world can turn on something as random as a stranger making a bad decision in your vicinity on a neighborhood road.

As she talked about her late husband, and the cruel turn their lives had taken this year, Mrs. Johnson moved between smiling fondly at a favorite memory and tearing up when the reality of the loss came to her again.

She remembered how Kenny had encouraged her career, urged her to continue her education, and had researched master’s degree programs for her. With her years of service to Metro Schools and her education, and with the degree he cheered her on to complete, that step is within reach. “He wanted me to become a principal,” she said. “He would say, ‘Always be looking to advance.’”

Mrs. Johnson showed me the program that she had designed for her husband’s memorial service. She wrote the text for the inside cover, which included: “Kenneth walked the world with a loving, beautiful smile, and a kind heart each day. Anyone who knew Kenneth would always say to him, ‘Kenneth, your smile can light up a room.’”

The Rev. Marcy Thomas, a chaplain at VUMC, is one of those who knows about that smile:

“I was one of the fortunate ones who will always carry with me the remembrance of that beautiful smile and Kenny’s accompanying great heart,” she said. “As hospital chaplain, it was my privilege to get to know both Kenny and Eileen when they were hospitalized at the same time in 2007. In succeeding years, and most recently after their accident, our friendship deepened.

“I knew Kenny to be curious and smart—a lifelong learner,” she continued. “As several people commented at his memorial service, he was a great encourager, sincerely interested and invested in the lives of his family and friends. And, I have never seen a couple who cared for one another as wholeheartedly as did Kenny and Eileen. I marveled at their devotedness.”

One of the last things Mrs. Johnson told me was she and Kenny had celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary last year. Their 31st would have been this past July 31.

Follow Wayne on Twitter: @woodw

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