- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2001

After his two older brothers died in the violent culture of the streets, Maurice Johnson made a promise to his family and himself.
He would be careful. He would choose his friends wisely. He would work hard at avoiding the same pitfalls that claimed the lives of Mickey and Darrin Johnson.
In a 1995 interview with The Washington Times, the 12-year-old's dreams for the future seemed modest. "I hope I grow up," he said.
Surrounded by the junkies and gang members on the corners near his Northeast home and haunted by the rapid gunfire that killed his brothers, he wasn't sure he would make it.
The centered young man not only has grown up, but boards a plane for Florida on Sunday to begin his freshman year on scholarships at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona.
He is an accomplished saxophone player at age 18 with a love for God and his church, and no time — or need, he says — for a vice as innocuous as television, much less more-dangerous ones.
"I'm used to striving to be the best," said Mr. Johnson, an upbeat yet guarded teen-ager dressed in stylish jeans, black shoes and a black T-shirt during an interview this week.
"To see him grow up to see him handle himself is just beyond words," said his grandmother and guardian, Carrie Hamilton-Jackson, part of the young man's extensive support system. "God just put it into his heart to get away from that environment."
Mr. Johnson saw that environment on the streets near his grandmother's home on East Capitol Street NE, just beyond RFK Stadium.
A similar environment consumed his brothers.
The three boys lived with their mother in the Trinidad neighborhood in another part of Northeast.
Mr. Johnson was only 5 when Mickey Johnson died in 1988 and remembers little about him.
Mickey Johnson, 16, was pumping gas into a friend's new BMW at a station in Northwest when he was ambushed by gunfire. Investigators believed the shooting tied into a local turf war between rival gangs, though the case was never solved.
"It affected me deeply, even though I didn't know him too well," he said of his brother's death.
Then there was Darrin Johnson, who found time to take his little brother to the arcade and the Ice Capades, but couldn't steer clear of trouble. He racked up an arrest record in Prince George's County and the District, and spent some time in jail.
In 1995, the 23-year-old was sitting in a friend's new BMW in a shopping center parking lot in Northeast when at least two gunmen walked up to the car and opened fire. That case also remains unsolved.
"After the second [killing], I began to get scared," said Mr. Johnson, who was not even a teen-ager at the time. "I would sleep in the same room with my grandmother."
In the aftermath of this second violent death, his family — which includes an older sister now in Florida and a younger sister still living with his grandmother — stepped in to keep him safe.
By that time, he had moved into a slightly better community with his grandmother. His new school would be even farther away.
In 1995, relatives enrolled the young Maurice in Deale Junior High School in upper Northwest.
He brought with him his B average and attended nine classes a day. He also picked up the alto saxophone.
"That's something that's very, very important to him," said Mr. Johnson's best friend and soon-to-be college roommate, Ben Cooper III. "I think it's something that keeps him out of trouble. He plays every day."
At the same time, Mr. Johnson enjoyed the company of the close-knit group of worshippers at his uncle's church, the Word of God Baptist Church in Southeast.
The Rev. John L. McCoy credits his nephew's spirituality for helping him rise above the turmoil in his young life.
"This is a very determined young man. He kind of feels he has to do what his brothers didn't do," Mr. McCoy said. "He's always wanted to do right."
Mr. Johnson also has looked up to Mr. McCoy as a role model. When asked at age 9 what he would do with his life, Maurice said he wanted to be a pastor.
Nowadays, he hints that the church still could be his calling.
"It gives you someone to look up to, to want to be," he said.
When it came time to move up to high school, Mr. Johnson auditioned at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown, a prestigious institution boasting some of the highest SAT scores and graduation rates in the city.
He initially didn't think he had performed well enough to be accepted. But Mr. Johnson rewarded the school's faith in him by earning recognition as the most-improved musician at the school between his freshman and senior years, one of his many awards.
He also learned to play the tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, clarinet and flute, and played drums at the church.
"I had him come in early a lot," said Ellington music teacher Davey Yarborough.
A typical high school day for Maurice started with band practice at 7:30 a.m., followed by a full schedule of classes, more practice after school and two hours of Bible study or men's group at the church, where he also tutored math.
Mentors often would drive him home at night.
As for his homework, "You find time on the bus," he said.
Around his neighborhood, Mr. Johnson said, he found support in some of the most unlikely places.
"Even junkies on the corner would say, 'Don't go down the road I went down.'"
Teens in gangs told him not to hang around with them, and neighbors who once played an instrument would say, "I wish I had stayed with it."
"I think Maurice did pretty good," said his friend Mr. Cooper, also 18. "I know other people in his situation, and they didn't turn out as well."
With the tragedies of the past seemingly behind him, Mr. Johnson was dealt another blow: In December 1999, his mother, Jean Johnson, died from liver failure at age 45. She couldn't survive two surgeries.
"A lifetime of alcohol caught up with her," he said.
Mr. Yarborough said Mr. Johnson was preparing to perform his first concert with the jazz orchestra when he received a last-minute call from the doctor urging him to visit his mother before she died.
"He said, 'No, my mother would want me to do the concert,'" Mr. Yarborough said.
After the concert, Mr. Yarborough drove the teen to see Mrs. Johnson. She died later that night.
"It was pretty hard," Mr. Johnson said. "It was constant pain."
It was the most recent death in a family that had seen more than its share. Besides his brothers, Mr. Johnson also has lost an uncle and a grandmother.
When Mr. Yarborough took a glimpse of a family photo album, he was shocked. "There were more programs from funerals in there than I had ever seen in one place before."
In June, Mr. Johnson graduated 19th in his class, which started with more than 200 students and finished with about 80. His father, Eddie Hamilton, who has stayed in the area but moves around to live with different relatives, came to watch.
Now Mr. Johnson, armed with a laptop computer and a lacquer-coated saxophone — awards from his high school days — heads off to college.
He earned a variety of scholarships from Bethune-Cookman and Ellington, enough to cover all of his expenses.
Maurice, who turned down a scholarship to attend the University of Northern Iowa, will major in music education. He still doesn't know if he wants to focus on activism, preaching, teaching or performing with his sax.
"You never know," Mr. Johnson said. "I might be a famous musician."
Regardless, he already has far exceeded anyone's expectations.
"He is getting ready to go to college," said his grandmother, Mrs. Hamilton-Jackson. "We are most proud of that."

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