Some people’s lives serve as best lesson

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Friday, August 31, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — I never really understood my friend W.W. Johnson, who died last week. I have trouble understanding people who routinely live up to the principles they espouse, quietly bearing the cost (financial and otherwise) of their choices and expecting not an earthly thing in return.

All I know is that I adored the man and admired particularly his commitment to the children we sometimes describe as "at-risk."

I met W.W. (for William Warner) a decade ago when he was a 45-year-old D.C. policeman increasingly frustrated and discouraged by the violence he encountered, particularly among young black men in his Northeast Washington precinct.

He asked to be assigned to Woodson Junior High, where he immediately set up an after-school program, donating his own set of weights and begging and borrowing whatever else he needed. Shortly after that, he retired from the department and began working with troubled youngsters virtually full time — at first on his own, then with the Boys and Girls Clubs and finally as an ordained minister.

But that doesn’t tell you what I think you ought to know about this remarkable man. Maybe the best way to do that is to tell you the story of Elijah. The two met when Officer Johnson was called to Woodson one day to take care of a 14-year-old who was wrecking the principal’s office. Johnson, over 6 feet tall and pushing 250 pounds of weight-trained beef, grabbed the scrawny kid and threatened to throw him out the second-story window. The boy, Elijah Harris, calmed down right away.

They next met on one of Johnson’s frequent unofficial pastoral visits to Oak Hill, a city facility for youth offenders.

Elijah told Johnson he was tired of the macho life he’d been leading and was ready to straighten himself out. He started spending his weekend furloughs at Johnson’s home — and church —and, on his release, became a foster son to the Johnsons. Even the hard-nosed Johnson told me he was amazed at what followed.

The kid who was used to staying out for days at a time willingly accepted Johnson’s tough discipline, including a 10:30 p.m. curfew. He apparently translated the discipline as love, and responded to it with alacrity. He joined the church, came within a tenth of a point of making the honor roll at school, and became a recognized school leader. Not bad for a former incorrigible with straight Fs for three consecutive grading periods.

And then some guy who had a beef with Elijah — apparently from the days before he straightened himself out — shot Elijah dead.

Johnson had to call Elijah’s mother with the awful news — the hardest thing he’d done in his life, he told me at the time. The mother’s response, however, made it seem a lot less awful.

"Officer Johnson," he said she told him, "you made the last two years of my son’s life great. He always brought me Ds and Fs. I never could get him to go to church or stay out of trouble. If it hadn’t been for you, he probably would have been dead a lot sooner.

"Would you take my other son, Lamont?"

He did, of course, and now maybe you begin to understand what a special kind of man W.W. was. If not, let me tell you about Shawn Ragland, the youngster convicted of killing Elijah.

At the sentencing hearing, Johnson asked the court for permission to speak and offered this proposition: Sentence the 20-year-old gunman to 15 years and order him to earn his high school diploma and a college degree. If he accomplishes those things in, say, six or seven years, "then let him out at that time to do 1,000 hours of community service with me."

Maybe you won’t be too surprised to learn that Ragland, after serving just two years for killing Johnson’s "son," was released to Johnson’s custody, moving into his home.

Elijah’s mother, Oletha Harris, admitted she had mixed feelings about that move. "Sometimes I feel for Shawn," she told a reporter, "and other days I want him to die, too."

That’s probably close to where most of us are.

But listen to Johnson, in a speech to students at Anacostia High School:

"It’s just possible that if Shawn Ragland gets another chance in life, he’ll reach back and help a brother. If I can forgive a guy who killed my son, you can forgive a guy who bumped into you."

That’s where a lot of us wish we could be.

William Raspberry can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or

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