Thursday, September 11, 2003

Couple collides with fate

An auto accident 14 years ago brought a Florence family closer together

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Starting today, our dart feature returns. It's our attempt to test the theory that everybody has a story. We throw darts at the phone book and when a dart hits a name, a reporter dials the phone number and asks if someone in the home will be interviewed.
The story begins on Christmas morning almost 14 years ago.

Sharyn and Don Johnson, a couple in their 20s and married for a year, had no money for gifts. The water had frozen in their Florence trailer.

Sharyn was assistant director at a day-care center, making less than $6 an hour, which paid the bills. Barely. Don had been driving a wrecker, but quit to complete the few classes he needed to earn an associate's degree in electronic engineering from Cincinnati State. Three more months and he would graduate.

"I couldn't even buy a Pepsi at school," Don says. "We were that broke."

"We figured we could do it," Sharyn says. "Three months. We could pay bills, with like $10 left over.

"We were as down as we could get."

Or so they thought.

Unforgettable Christmas

[IMAGE] Sharyn and Don Johnson and their children, Zachary, 8, (top) and Jace, 11.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
They ate Christmas breakfast in Erlanger with Don's mother, who gave Sharyn a new Bible. It was in Sharyn's lap as they drove home in their '81 Chevy pickup. A light snow began falling just before noon as they rounded a bend on Turkeyfoot Road. Don, who was driving, caught a glimpse of a white car in his lane.

"There wasn't even time to scream," he says. "I was going for the brake, and it was in my face."

The car, a Corvette, hit them head-on. From behind, they were struck by two cars that couldn't stop in time. They were slammed again by another car traveling in the opposite direction.

Don's teeth were embedded in the steering wheel. The roof of his mouth was bloodied and broken, and he'd suffered neck and shoulder injuries. Sharyn's legs were mangled; six breaks in one, two in the other. Her chin had caved in the metal dashboard, and her head had shattered the windshield. She had five broken bones in her face.

Tragedies happen every day, affecting those we know, many we don't. Sometimes we're moved to help in some way, maybe by writing a check. Then we move on, left to wonder how long the goodwill generated by a kindness lasts. A day? A week?

For Sharyn Johnson, it's almost 14 years and counting. She still holds certain memories close to her heart.

The dog, for instance.

The Johnsons' 80-pound black Labrador retriever, Bud, was sitting between them in the truck. Somehow he escaped injury. Somebody at the accident scene, a stranger, volunteered to take Bud home that Christmas morning, until a family friend could pick him up.

Sharyn couldn't go home, of course. She spent a week in a hospital, hooked to a morphine tube. Don refused to be admitted, because they had no health insurance.

If your name appears in the Cincinnati Bell white pages, you, too, have a mild chance to be the subject of a Tempo dart story. Here's how it works:

Using a complex system involving lottery numbers, we select a page from the phone book, rip it out, and tack it to a wall. Then we toss a dart at the page 10 times. (Or more if the dart thrower's aim is bad.)

Each hit is numbered, 1 to 10. If No. 1 agrees to an interview, that's our story. If No. 1 refuses or can't be reached, we try No. 2, and so on.

Because we're testing the theory that everybody has a story worth telling, nobody is weeded out. Anyone who agrees to be interviewed will be written up in the paper.

At Florence's Christian Care Center, where Sharyn had worked for years, somebody set up a money tree with red paper hearts attached to the branches. It stood at the entrance, where anyone could pull off a heart and slip it in a card with money.

A few weeks after the accident, the center's staff surprised the Johnsons with more than $1,000. It went toward prescriptions and food.

Difficult days

"It wasn't a fortune," Don says, "but it was enough to get us by."

Sharyn pulls out a snapshot taken at the day-care center. It shows children around the money tree, flashing the "I love you" sign.

"I cared for everybody's kids," she says, "and then they cared for me."

Don was able to start working not long after the accident, but he injured his back carrying Sharyn to a doctor's appointment. They were difficult days.

"Then when we started getting things from people we didn't know," Sharyn says, "that was the real shocker."

Her mother, who was a Boone County bus driver, helped spread the word that the young couple needed help. "Somebody knew somebody that knew somebody," Sharyn says. "We just started getting these checks in the mail.

"It was amazing that so many people cared, because they didn't know us from Adam." The checks came from church groups, mostly. Sharyn's mother and Don's mother also helped with bills.

But it wasn't just the money that sustained Sharyn, who couldn't work for four months.

"I got cards from a lot of the same people every week. With notes, every week: 'Hope this week's better. Can't wait to see you again.' "

While she lay at home recovering, Sharyn wrote thank-yous to everyone for whom she had a return address. She wrote another that was printed in a community paper.

They're doing fine, although both have lingering aches and pains. Don, 43, earned his degree, and is a computer and network technician. Sharyn, 40, now works as health clerk at Florence Elementary, which their children, Jace, 11, and Zachary, 8, attend.

Fourteen years after the accident, Sharyn keeps the paper hearts that hung on the money tree, the cards, the memories. She and Don, who now live in a Florence ranch-style home, believe the accident changed them; and that because of it, they're a closer family, perhaps less materialistic than some, more willing to help others when they can.

A young mother, whose children attend Florence Elementary, died this summer. Sharyn's sending a check to their trust fund. It's just one check. But she knows if enough people contribute ...


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