With a big smile on her face, 98-year-old Gwendolyn Johnson talked about her longevity while also sharing a conversation she had with her grandchildren.
“I feel fine,” said Johnson. “I can’t walk, but I don’t complain because I’ve got two legs. I asked the good Lord if I could live to be 100. One of my grandchildren said, ‘You aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The good Lord isn’t going to let you come up there yet because you are going to be running around trying to boss his angels.’”
For most of her life, Johnson has been championing ‘down here’ for the citizens of Baltimore. The activist and Baltimore native spent 51 years serving on the board of Maryland Legal Aid (MLA). A private, non-profit organization, MLA provides free, high-quality civil legal services to low-income people across Maryland. For more than a decade, Johnson held the position of Vice Chair. Johnson recently stepped down from the post but plans to continue working with the organization as a board member.
Johnson’s extensive community activism includes representing Baltimore’s Cherry Hill community on the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee, serving for over 20 years. She also was tapped by former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer to start and oversee the Eat Together Baltimore program which she operated out of the Cherry Hill Senior Center. In addition, she volunteered at the Walter P. Carter Recreation Center in the 1960s.
“I’ve just been active all my life,” said Johnson. “My mother gave me away when I was six months old. And my mother that raised me always told me to keep a smile on my face and that a smile would help get me through. My family was always giving something to somebody and taught me to always look out for the next person. That’s the way I was brought up.”
Johnson is a resident of FutureCare Sandtown. Recently FutureCare Health & Management, which operates 15 rehabilitation and skilled nursing centers across the Baltimore/Washington area, recognized Johnson for her work in the community.
Maryland Legal Aid Executive Director Vicki Schultz spoke passionately about Johnson, “We are incredibly grateful for Ms. Gwendolyn Johnson’s service on the Board of Directors of Maryland Legal Aid.” She added, “We have come together to honor and thank her for her more than 51 years of dedication to our mission and her passionate advocacy on behalf of our clients.”
Donning a tiara during her honorary event, Johnson said she felt like a movie star. “They rolled out the red carpet,” she said. “They brought food and sodas for everybody, had signs everywhere and everyone told me how beautiful I looked. It was such a beautiful event.”
Johnson said plans are in the works for an MLA boardroom to carry her name. “For years, I have referred people to Legal Aid,” she said. “There are many people who don’t know about Legal Aid. But Legal Aid helps poor people who don’t have thousands of dollars to pay lawyers.”
MLA is the largest provider of free, direct legal services in Maryland. As a private, non-profit law firm, MLA provides a full range of free civil legal services to low-income people statewide, in Baltimore City and in Maryland’s 23 counties, from 12 office locations. MLA handles civil (not criminal) cases involving a wide range of issues, including child custody, housing, public benefits, consumer law and criminal record expungements to remove barriers to obtaining child custody, housing and employment.
Born January 19, 1924 in Baltimore, Maryland, Johnson has one biological son, but raised four additional children after the death of their mother. She has five grandchildren. Johnson said her husband Jack, died in 1971. Johnson’s lengthy career of helping others also includes working for the Maryland Department of Health Commission on Aging.
“Ms. Johnson has given both residents and staff a lot of assistance with Legal Aid and where they can go for resources,” said Barbara A. Clauser, Executive Director of FutureCare Sandtown. “She has very actively participated in everything and she is truly someone that I think everybody in the building really admires.”
Cheyenna Washington, Activity Director for FutureCare Sandtown heralded the work of Johnson whom she affectionately calls “Miss Gwen.” “Miss Gwen is very outspoken, vocal and wants things done right,” said Washington. “She always wants justice and rightness not only for herself, but for others.”